Men Who Stare at Goats (2009)

Rated R. Our ratings: V-3 ; L-4; S-1/N-2

Those who are unspiritual do not receive the
gifts of God’s Spirit, for they are foolishness to
them, and they are unable to understand them
because they are discerned spiritually. Those
who are spiritual discern all things, and they
are themselves subject to no one else’s scrutiny.
‘For who has known the mind of the Lord
so as to instruct him?’

But we have the mind of Christ.
And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarrelling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations?
2 Cor 2:14-3:3

Bill Django and Lyn Cassady at a training session of the New Earth Army.

2009 Overture Films

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called—crazy, foolish, or perhaps, worse, silly? So direc tor Grant Heslov and scriptwriter Peter Straughan seem to say in this absurdist satire that took me back to Joseph Heller’s delightful Catch-22. It is the tone of the film, not the plot that brought to mind the antics of Sgt. Yossarian, whom you might recall thought that he was the only sane man in an insane Army: the plot of Heslov’s film is more like Zorba and Snoopy meet Obi-wan Kenobi and Gandhi, with maybe even a touch of The Fisher King thrown in. Based on the nonfiction book of the same name by British journalist Jon Ronson, Heslov’s film begins with the claim, “More of this is true than you would believe.” If so, then at least someone in the US armed services did try to find an alternative to violence in fighting the war on terrorism.

The fictional framework of the story involves Michigan journalist Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor) traveling to Kuwait during Operation Desert Storm. His marriage has broken up, and he wants to prove himself as a man and as a journalist, so when he meets a suave operative named Lyn Cassady (George Clooney), he is taken by the man’s claims about having been trained in paranormal techniques. The ex-soldier claims to have taken part in an Army experiment that involved staring at a goat and willing its heart to stop beating.

Attaching himself to Lyn, Wilton undertakes a journey into Iraq that proves far more dangerous than anticipated, beginning when Lynn crashes their truck while cloud busting (hence the earlier mention of The Fisher King), and then they and their interpreter are picked up by terrorists. Through frequent flashbacks to the 1970s and 80s, we learn that Lyn had been trained in the U.S. Army’s First Earth Battalion by Bill Django (Jeff. Bridges), a soldier who after a near death experience in Vietnam had gone on to submerge himself in various New Age and Buddhist groups, convinced that he could train recruits to become Jedi warriors capable of meeting the enemy with weapons of the mind and spirit.

If you enjoyed Jeff Bridges as the Dude in The Big Lebowski, you will love him as the acidhead who embraces the mixture of mysticism and mind-bending tenants of New Ageism—for example, he says in a training session, “Dear Mother Earth… I will drink your blue waters… and eat your green skin.” In Zorba the Greek we thrilled when the shy Basil finally joined Zorba, the two dancing on the beach serving as an Easter note to their doomed plans to open a mine. In this film we laugh and cheer as Bill Django coaxes Lyn Cassady to shed his inhibitions and dance to a Billy Idol song. And yet amidst the frivolity, there are also references to Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo. There is also a snake in this military garden of peace, well played by Kevin Spacey as Larry Hooper, a soldier who, hating Django’s loosey goosey beliefs and ways, infiltrates the unit in his campaign to subvert and take over the New earth Army.

Eventually Hooper succeeds in bringing the New Earth Army to a close, and reporter Bob Wilton returns to the States, but with quit an altered take on the universe and the world, as we ser in the amusingly bizarre conclusion. The filmmakers probably do not intend to do more than make us laugh at the follies of the military—there is a delightful Joseph Heller scene in which General Hopgood (Stephen Lang), sold on Bill Django’s psychic powers, talks with the Army brass about the Russians setting up a psychic unit because they had heard rumors that the Americans had done so. Fearful that we would fall behind, the generals agree that we also must organize one in response.

However, beneath the film’s humor there is a serious substratum of the search for alternative ways to wage war. As a long-time student of Gandhi I thought of his dream that India would establish a non-violent army when it became independent from Great Britain. Having tested his ideas of non-violent resistance which he called satyagraha (Gandhi coined the term by combing the words for “truth” or “soul” with “force” ) in South Africa and throughout India, Gandhi hoped that his new nation would break the age-old tradition of maintaining an army that fought with weapons of violence. He had plans for training an army of satyagrahis based on his experience with his followers. However, his favorite disciple Nehru did not believe in his non-violent philosophy. When Nehru became Prime Minister, the new army of India followed the same old traditional path. Gandhi died a deeply disappointed man, broken-hearted as well by the orgy of violence caused by the breakup of what he had hoped would be a united India. Well, maybe this is too much to lay on such a frothy satire, but at least the efforts of the kooky Django and Cassady led me into deeper territory than expected. Whether or not you choose to explore more deeply, do see the film for a delightful movie experience.

For Reflection/Discussion

1. Which character attracted you? Repelled you?

2. How do Django and Cassady provide a good summing up of the Hippy Movement of the 1960s and 1970s? How were drugs an important part of this?

3. Do you see any kernels of wisdom amidst all the characters’ goofiness? Such as, “Their gentleness is their strength.” 4. Compare the cloud-busting scene in this film with the one in The Fisher King, especially the outcome of each. Do you think there is any truth in the idea that the mind can control, or at least affect, matter? What seems to be the opinion of the filmmakers, as judged by the conclusion of the film?

5. Read the Pauline passage as it might apply to the New Earth Army. How are Django and Cassady, in the words of the apostle, “still not ready, for you are still of the flesh” ?

6. Mention above was made of Gandhi and his hope for a non-violent army ofr the newly independent India. The Mahatma, possessing a very rational, even scientific mind (hence the title of his famous autobiography), was no mystic or drug user, so his would have been quite different from the New Earth Army. What do you think of the suggestion that the U.S. add a “Department of Peace” to the Presidential cabinet? How might this be more effective than the project on which this movie is based?

7. Those wanting to explore further the idea of an alternative “army” will find some fascinating information on the subject in the following two articles: “Mahatma Gandhi and His Myths: Civil Disobedience, Nonviolence, and Satyagraha in the Real World” By Mark Shepard at http://www.markshep.com/nonviolence/Myths.html and “Satyagraha” at http://www.quietspaces.com/satyagraha.html