As a kid I was a sucker for the patriotic or counterculture fist-pump, the humanised enemy representative who receives a grand rescue by White America Man, who is raging against the machine of Evil White Men Who Won’t Listen To Humanistic Reason And Probably Smirk A Lot, thus signifying that White America in the audience was ok after all – because they’re certainly represented by the good guy, not the suits, right? Didn’t our soulful proxy just save the doe-eyed enemy, making us realise we’re really One World, Together?
Unfortunately, I grew out of that happy fuzziness into retching at smug self-effacement and wishing we were following the enemy’s story instead, getting into their head. And I can’t help but wonder that these portrayals aren’t salt in the wounds of real individuals represented, first abused and then symbolically rescued by the dominant culture attempting to wipe out theirs. So, based solely on a triumphant rescue scene that liberates starving, tortured, orange jumpsuit-clad Iraqi prisoners to the desert with no supplies, I can’t entirely recommend The Men Who Stare At Goats, despite this being what supposedly happened to journalist Jon Ronson in the course of investigating the US military’s experiments with New Age techniques well after the most credulous hippies had abandoned them.
Aside from this problematic thread, The Men Who Stare At Goats is an often fascinating black comedy exploring a (somewhat true) recent iteration of humanity’s continual need for mythic superhumans, those whose mental and physical abilities breech – just slightly – the limits of human possibility. It’s satisfying to hear of warriors and sages who can, after years of esoteric study, leap great distances or see beyond the range of their eyes. This superman defines the human by providing both a clear dividing line and the inspiration to achieve full potential by trying to leap beyond it.
The needful human relationship to myths officially goes skew-wiff, though, when people start believing they’ve achieved magic abilities themselves.
Goats brings together people of two modern eras when Americans en masse felt they’d lost the national narrative and were susceptible to magical thinking, the beginnings of the 1980s and 2000s. Based on the real-life First Earth Battalion and the Stargate Project, which ultimately only contributed to the psychological warfare tactics of the US military, the film follows a man rocked primarily by divorce and obligatorily by the cultural turmoil following the 2001 terrorist attacks who connects with a former Jedi Warrior / test subject who believes he’s been reactivated. Like many young adults in September’s immediate aftermath, Bob feels his personal problems should be taking a back seat to those in the larger world he’s suddenly aware of. Unlike most of them, who attended protests and blogged furiously and ultimately realised that horrific world events went on whether they paid attention or not, Bob went to Kuwait and tried to get imbedded with troops in Iraq.
Instead, he meets Lyn – a name he knows from interviewing a local crazy / former First-Earther who claimed to have psychic abilities – and plunges into two decades of flashbacks detailing a Vietnam War vet’s immersion in post-sixties counterculture and his attempt to forge “Jedi Warriors” out of soldiers. The soldiers themselves are mostly the typical waifs and strays that drift into military life, looking for connection, discipline, and meaning, and one spoon-bending huckster. It’s an obvious train wreck waiting to happen, with surprising moments of sweetness along the way. Bob tags along, unsure whether he’s uncovering a tale of classified governmental insanity or true superhumans, but sure either will establish him as a serious journalist and impress his ex-wife.
There’s a core of sadness running through the dark comedy, and the film itself would fail if it was merely a Dr Strangelove-style satire. Only the awareness that this is based on real madness, that the potential for paranormal warfare was embraced by two presidents – one enamoured with astrology and the Star Wars movies, the other drawing strength from a mystical evangelic tradition – provides the stranger-than-fiction hilarity. Underneath the self-delusions, however, are lonely people looking for an explanation that forces some sense onto the randomness of life. Bill Django, severely wounded by a single foe his troop of green soldiers fail to hit, has the revelation that even trained soldiers, new to the battlefield, will avoid killing another human being. Revering this ‘gentleness,’ he doesn’t leave the army but instead counter-intuitively seeks to bring it into the military paradigm as a combat advantage. It’s as if being part of that system is imperative to his identity, even as his values move in direct opposition to the business of killing.
The soldiers brought into the program embrace the warmfuzzy self-actualisation exercises, despite the divergence from their military training. They also prove to be mentally flexible enough to encompass both the military setting that has given them a recognised niche in life and the silly activities that feel good and garner them praise from authority. There’s a snake in this doomed garden, of course, the huckster mentioned above who might believe in his own advertised powers but is far better at cynically manipulating his superiors using real-world leverage. After a series of embarrassments, he stages a coup and pushes the old guard out of the program, which he changes to focus on practical methods of undermining and killing the enemy.
Here lies the film’s most simple and genuine journey – the mildly brainwashed Lyn, leaving the military, is ‘cursed’ by his enemy. He feels he left himself open to that by impulsively using his powers to kill an innocent being (the stared-at goat of the title), thus perverting the life-affirming philosophies on which his new identity of a Jedi Warrior are based. Years later, dying of exposure in the Iraqi desert, he’s saved by a goat who leads him first to an oasis, then to rescue. He repays this implied forgiveness by rescuing a flock of military goats destined for painful experimentation (and, in the process, the tortured prisoners mentioned above, but they are a conceptual afterthought), and is able to face the end of his life in peace, with his mentor at his side.
These are men sifting through their lives for a core, heroic narrative, as evidenced by unironically taking on the identity of fictional space samurai. They attempt to take the occasional flashes of brilliance that make mundane life interesting or just bearable and force them to become something controllable and permanent. The constant tease of the movie is whether they’ve managed to do so, in any way, or if their belief that they have supernatural powers merely allows them to sometimes pull off impressive stunts attainable by meat and nerves. Perhaps Lyn and Bill have, taking the long way, attained a sort of wu wei, accepting that where they are is where they are meant to be at that moment, and accomplish what anyone could without the cloud of pointless anxiety fogging their decisions (instead of a massive dose of psychotomimetics, which apparently fixes all ills).
The film ends anticlimactically, with Bob’s exposé of cruel and unusual prisoner torture and military experimentation receiving only the smallest, pettiest media coverage (that prisoners were forced to listen to Barney the Dinosaur). Inspired by the First Earth principles, however, Bob vows to soldier on and achieves the trick all others had failed, phasing through an office wall. Or, retreats into a hallucination of doing so while he actually smacks himself unconscious. (Why, exactly, must they keep attempting this at work, with witnesses?) Whether they actually succeed is a moot point; only that the potential they might have becomes a fantasy-sustaining myth for the rest.