Setting up easy targets, The Men Who Stare at Goats seems less clever than behind the times.
"We always recognize our own kind," asserts Lyn Cassady (George Clooney). That kind would be Jedi knights, or, more-and-less precisely, men with superpowers. At the moment (2003) he's in Kuwait City, where he's identified a reporter from Ann Arbor, Bob (Ewan McGregor), as "one of us." Visibly nonplussed, Bob also sees an opportunity: feeling abused by a wife who's left him for his editor, he's been looking for a way over the border to Iraq, that is, a way to assert his manhood. And Lyn, a former Special Forces officer turned military contractor, looks like just the ticket.
"Be careful what you wish for," cautions Bob at the start of The Men Who Stare at Goats. "I wanted to prove myself, and for my sins, fate taught me a lesson." With this invocation of Apocalypse Now, at least, Bob's story swirls into some sort of action, ponderously intercut with his narrated version of Lyn's story (this despite Lyn's early protestation, "I don't want to be a story"). If they share plot elements -- namely, Lyn and the titular farm animals he is able to kill with his mind (that is, by staring at them) -- these stories also share efforts to conjure new and improved masculinities. Rather than the brute aggression typically promoted as heroism, these guys seek higher purposes and more intelligent behaviors, peace instead of war.
Based on Jon Ronson's nonfiction book about a secret New Age unit in the U.S. military ("More of this is true than you would believe," declares an opening epigraph), the movie calls that unit the New Earth Army. Bob learns that Lyn is a proud true believer, proficient in the "sparkly eyes" technique and "visual aesthetics" in order to fight not with guns but with his mind. (Note the point here is still to fight.) Recruited years ago by Dude-ish Vietnam war vet Bill Django (Jeff Bridges), Lyn is trained up in the ways of "warrior monks." On witnessing his fellow soldiers' reluctance to take out VC enemies ("Only 15% of fresh soldiers," he quotes a so-called study, "shoot to kill"), Bill has a revelation, that combat is not the most effective way to "win." His methods include meditation and freeform dance sessions (enhanced by hallucinogens and occasional prostitutes), and he urges trainees to explore varieties of consciousness. "We'll be the first superpower to have superpowers!" he announces gleefully.
Bill's cavorting is patently silly and Lyn's determination is intermittently charming. But for all the fun it has with these idealists, the film has actual targets in mind. These are broadly cartoonish and banal, as Bill's unit is infiltrated by the decidedly small-minded Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey), jealous of Lyn's talents and determined to steal the glory for himself. He stands in here for the larger targets, Dark Siders like Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld, who twisted Psy-Ops in order to devise insidious tortures (men in orange jumpsuits forced to listen to the Barney theme song or otherwise brutalized in Abu Ghraibish cells) and, above all, make money.
Such targets are, of course, awfully easy, which makes The Men Who Stare at Goats seem less clever than behind the times. If Bob is visibly disgusted to read about early experiments had soldiers torturing kittens in order to see if their mamas cold "feel" their pain from a distance, the glib indictment of such thinking doesn’t really get at how it happens. That is, the Dark Side is not aberrant, but logical and predictable.
What the film never imagines is an outside to this logic and predictability. Even as the New Earth Army aspires to nominal "peace," it is also geared to and built by the military, after all. When Bob and Lyn meet up with an actual Iraqi, Mahmud (Waleed Zuaiter), the film makes repeated jokes about the Americans' inability to pronounce his name correctly, as this signifies the Americans' inability to repair all the damage they're doing in Iraq (and elsewhere). You've heard this story before: Americans are relentlessly clumsy and willfully blind, determined never to recognize their own kind.