Hearing Ewan McGregor ask, innocently and warily, about Jedi, is a wonderful bit of self-referential humor.
And it nicely sums up “Men Who Stare at Goats”.
These aren’t real Jedi that Bob Wilton (McGregor) are finding out about, but members of a secret group within the United States Army, who are practicing and honing their psychic warrior skills, like instant complete awareness of their surroundings (Level 1), intuition (Level 2), and invisibility (Level 3). George Clooney as Lyn Cassady, doing his most earnest, deadpan reading, patiently explains all this to Wilton, on a road trip from Kuwait into Iraq during the early stages of Iraq War 2. It isn’t until later that we learn about Level 4, the ability to stop a goat’s (or other living animal’s) heart simply by staring at it.
The tales are told in flashback, as Cassady describes how a New Age guru, Bill Django (played by Jeff Bridges), a loving, peaceful kind of warrior, passing out daisies and smiling beatifically, becomes a force for good within our military, giving training exercises in dance and handing out psychedelic drugs to unleash the soldiers’ inner children. All of which is a response to spy reports that the Soviets are working on developing their own Jedi, which they started in response to false reports that we were working on it. Which explains why it all needs to be kept secret; can’t have the Soviets finding out that the project they falsely learned we were developing was in fact, not a secret.
The serpent in this new camo-colored Garden of Eden is Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey, who makes a great Dark Sider), a former sci-fi writer who tries, but just can’t seem to get all this crazy empathy stuff, and who works to undermine the unit. It’s he who introduces Level 4 – which causes Cassady to balk.
Every time Clooney tries to explain psychic warfare to McGregor, he appears oblivious to the fact that he’s wrapping a bit of magic around a balls-out crazy physical attack; the way he talks about getting into an enemies’ mind to dissuade him from attacking, before giving the punch-line of stabbing the enemy in the neck with a pen to create a fountain of blood. Uh, wouldn’t the stabbing part be the effective part? Clooney tacks that on almost as an afterthought.
And McGregor, playing an emasculated and cuckolded reporter for a small-town paper, buys into it all. Eventually. He wants redemption for losing his wife to his boss. And given Clooney’s charm, I very much could see someone overlooking the crazy to see the message underneath.
But then, I’m one of those crazy dirty fucking hippies who hate war in the first place. Of course, I’d buy it all.
But I’m not going to leap into a fight without even a knife, trusting in the Force to guide me though. That’s just nuts.