When it comes to film adaptations of books, I generally try to steer clear of the original. The book is often better, richer in content at least, and I want to be fair to a movie and enjoy it on its own terms. When it comes to The Men Who Stare at Goats, however, I missed out on the film when it was first released and hadn't much intention of seeing it until I read the book and decided to see it out of curiosity. I ought have heeded my usual practice, for the book is indeed the superior creation; the movie, a travesty.
Jon Ronson's book tells the impossibly true story of an obscure Army unit founded in the late 1970s on New Age principles. This unit, the First Earth Battalion, led research on mind mastery--including, supposedly, how to stun or kill a goat using only one's mind--that mutated in the early years of the George W. Bush administration into the psychological torture techniques employed in Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere. The paranormal research unearthed covers a surprising panorama of recent history, including such figures and events as Manuel Noriega, the Heaven's Gate suicide cult, the CIA's MK-ULTRA experiments in LSD, and the Waco siege. Much of this borders on the implausible, but for the most part it's true.
The movie, by necessity, isn't able to cast so wide a net, and so much of the material is condensed into composite characters and an invented storyline, with Ewan Mcgregor playing a sad-sack journalist who goes to Iraq to prove to his ex-wife that he's not a loser and stumbling into the conspiratorial weirdness by way of George Clooney's ex-Special Forces character. A great deal of the information on the paranormal research drawn from the book is delivered in haphazard flashbacks dealing with Jeff Bridges and Kevin Spacey's rival characters, who show up in the present day near the end of the movie.
An adaptation of a long or detailed work can never capture all the contours of the original, but it needs to capture its spirit, and this is where the movie fails so badly. The outlandishness of the book's subject matter is helped immensely by Jon Ronson's dry, dry tone.
It was at this point that the battle between the two generals--Noriega and Stubblebine--shifted into the supernatural. Noriega took to tying black ribbons around his ankles and placing little scraps of paper in his shoes with names written on them to protect him against spells cast by his enemies. He was possibly walking around Panama City with the word Stubblebine secreted inside his shoe at the very moment that the general was trying to walk through his wall. How could General Stubblebine concentrate on passing through objects with that sort of craziness going on around him?
It's the straight-facedness that sells the lunacy. The movie contains all of the book's real-life oddities, but does little to give it any realistic grounding: Mcgregor and Clooney wander through the desert, are kidnapped, drive over an Improvised Explosive Device (the kind responsible for over 60% of U.S. military fatalities in Iraq), and live to walk around a military base with their IV drips in tow. This is to say nothing of the ludicrous ending, in which the whole base has its water supply spiked with LSD and Bridges and Clooney fly off giggling into the sun. The material was already strange enough without this lily-gilding.
This unseriousness is most fatally present in its treatment of the book's central conceit, that goofy paranormal research led to government-sanctioned torture:
Although this man was filled with the kindest of intentions and thoughts of peace, he was also, I would later discover, the inspiration behind a really quite bizarre form of torture undertaken by U.S. forces in Iraq in May 2003. This torture did not take place in the Abu Ghraib prison, where naked Iraqi detainees were forced to masturbate and to simulate oral sex with one another. It occurred instead inside a shipping container behind a disused railway station in the small town of al-Qa'im, on the Syrian border. It really was just as horrific, in its own way, as the Abu Ghraib atrocities, but because no photographs were taken, and because it involved Barney, the Purple Dinosaur, it wasn't greeted with the same blanket coverage or universal revulsion.
That's at the end of Chapter 2 in the book, whose second half is concerned with contemporary and historical abuses of power by the CIA, for which the deadpan humor serves as a useful counterbalance. The movie doesn't hint at any deeper issue until its third act, and resolves the problem of tortured detainees easily enough by freeing them during the aforementioned basewide acid spike. Then it has the temerity to turn Mcgregor into an unsung hero by having him report the abuses only to have the story dismissed as a joke because of the Barney the Dinosaur element. This is indeed what happened in real life, but by so largely skirting the issue for most its running time in favor of mere quirk, the movie is just as guilty, perhaps moreso, for its betrayal.
Occasionally, it gets it right and nails the tone of a given scene. George Clooney's demonstration of the Predator, for instance:
And then Pete produced, from his pocket, a small yellow blob of plastic. It had pointed edges and smooth edges and a hole in the middle. it looked like a children's toy, albeit one with no obvious means of being fun. Thi yellow blob, Pete said, was his own design, but it was an embodiment of Jim Channon's vision, and it was being carried right now in the pockets of the Eighty-second Airborne in Iraq, and soon, Pentagon willing, it would be in the pocket of every soldier in the United States Army. His blob, Pete said, "is friendly to the Earth, it has a spirit to it, it is as humane as you want it to be, the pointed bits go into people, it can snuff out your life in a heartbeat, and it looks a little bit funny. It is," he said, "the First Earth Battalion."
"What's it called?" I asked.
"The Predator," said Pete.
For the next hour or two, Pete hurt my chakra, in many, many ways, with his Predator.
Such scenes translate well to celluloid, but the movie is not consistent and never compelling, without any real purpose to its proceedings. Stare at it if you will, but it's certainly not stunning.