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Film / The Men Who Stare at Goats

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"More of this is true than you would believe."

The Men Who Stare at Goats is a 2009 comedy film directed by Grant Heslov, starring George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Jeff Bridges and Kevin Spacey.

The film is about a reporter who attempts to uncover the story of the so-called "Project: Jedi," a secret government organization dedicated to creating psychic super-soldiers with the goal of bringing about world peace.

He eventually manages to find one of the former members of this New Earth Army, who is on a secret mission in Iraq, and joins him. Hilarity Ensues.

Based on a book, which in turn was an account of a true story. No, really.

This film provides examples of:

  • Adaptation Name Change: Well, from the real-life project the book and film are 'adapted' from, anyway. "Project Jedi" was actually called the Stargate Project. No, not that one.
  • Area 51: Where Lyn was working when he was discovered.
  • Armies Are Evil: Thanks to Larry's scheming, the First Earth Battalion was turned into PSIC, the Army's torture division (which aside from locking people in rooms and keeping them awake with Barney & Friends music mentions in a quick joke that they used to toss dismembered corpses around to frighten people). Explicitly compared to the Dark Side of the Force.
  • Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking: In the New Earth Army manual :
    Bob (reading): "The Jedi Warrior will follow in the footsteps of the great imagineers of the past : Jesus Christ, Lao Tze Tung, Wa..Walt Disney."
  • Ascend to a Higher Plane of Existence: In the end Bob implies that happened to Bill and Lyn.
    Bob: Like all shaman, they returned to the sky.
  • Ate His Gun: Larry. But only because he had the munchies.
  • The Atoner: "Bill, do you believe in redemption?"
  • Awesome, but Impractical:
    • A man lifting bags of sand on hooks hung through his scrotum is asked what practical purpose it could possibly have.
    • The First Earth Battalion and the whole concept of psychic soldiers is showcased to be one, although not said outright. The third act involves the protagonists discovering Larry's work to make the division more practical in terms of an intelligence arm... which involves torturing insurgents for information. It's also mentioned in passing that they used to mutilate insurgent corpses, presumably for shock and awe.
    • Ben Echmeyer's knife-fighting technique that he taught the First Earth Battalion includes a move in which the knife-fighter jumps at his target with arms outstretched in an eagle-like dive. Bob snarks in narration that it's an In-Universe invocation of Crazy is Cool, as in the target is so bewildered at how insane the other guy must be to try that that it allows the knife-fighter to get close to stab him.
  • Awesome Personnel Carrier: We briefly see the venerable M113. It gets used in a mild There Was a Door moment.
  • Because Destiny Says So
  • Be Careful What You Wish For: Said word for word by Bob when he first meets Lyn.
  • Bedouin Rescue Service: Downplayed. Bob and Lyn are picked up by a helicopter crew in the desert. Also zigzagged when they are "rescued" by what turns out to be a group of bandits, who try to sell them to another bunch of bandits.
  • Bee-Bee Gun: A gun that shoots wasps is one of PSIC's ideas in between a non-lethal airbag mine and mutilating enemy corpses— "We don't do that anymore! Idiot!".
    • Note that he was shouting "We don't do that anymore!" in reference to the corpse mutilations, not the gun that shoots wasps.
  • Blind Driving: Part of the training of the New Earth Army involves driving a jeep around some barrels while wearing a blindfold.
  • Book Ends: The film starts with Hopgood trying to phase through a wall to enter the next room, and failing badly. The film ends with Bob succeeding.
  • Bunny-Ears Lawyer: Lyn's old, retired, and a bit daft, but he mostly stays calm under fire and is still a capable combatant.
  • Call to Adventure: "I was a Hobbit safe in the Shire, a blond farm-boy on a remote desert planet who had no idea that he was about to be drawn into an epic struggle between the forces of good and evil."
  • Celebrity Paradox: Star Wars is mentioned, and Ewan McGregor starred in the prequels. Bob Wilton must find it strange that he looks like him.
  • Character as Himself: One poster lists the Goat as an "actor".
  • Cheese-Eating Surrender Monkeys: The military contractors that pick Bob and Lyn up in the desert joke about the French military.
  • Cloudcuckoolander: Pretty much everyone in the New Earth Army. Hopgood is probably the furthest out there, always wearing a goofy grin.
  • Cute Kitten: Part of the reason the American army started investigating psychic powers was due to Russian experiments started because they thought Americans were already investigating this. Part of the experimentation did include scaring kittens. Obviously, those Dirty Communists went too far in doing so. America learned its lesson when their soldiers failed to shoot dogs, and instead abused goats.
  • The Dark Side: While the film openly makes it a Star Wars reference, it's more likely a pointed reference to Dick Cheney's line right after 9/11, which precipitated torture of suspects - the film Taxi to the Dark Side focused on the US military's unbridled violations of the Geneva Convention, which ultimately let to the Abu Ghraib controversy.
  • Death Glare: Literally. The reason they're staring at the goats is in an attempt to stop the goats' hearts. It also works on hamsters.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: When Bob asks Bill, "What are they going to do with these goats?", he isn't referring to the four-legged animals.
  • Do Unto Others Before They Do Unto Us: Explicitly shown to be the reason why both sides of the Cold War spent millions of dollars in mesmerizing bunk: if the possibility, however remote, existed that psychic powers actually existed, they just could not allow the other side to hold supremacy in the field of the paranormal.
  • Don't Try This at Home: The No Celebrities Were Harmed Credits Gag near the very end lists that you should not try killing goats with your mind, trying to run through walls, or cloudbursting while driving. "Invisibility is fine."
  • Drill Sergeant Nasty: Invoked by Bill, saying he's just kidding. Instead, they dance to Billy Idol's "Dancing With Myself".
  • Driven to Suicide: Averted at the end, as it turns out Larry is literally just trying to eat his gun due to a bad case of the munchies.
    • Played horribly straight with the soldier Larry tried MK Ultra experiments on.
  • Dual Wielding: The cornerstone of the Echmeyer method. This doesn't stop Lyn (a firm convert to the style) from trying to perform it against a hostage taker sans weapons.
  • Emerging from the Shadows: Bill does this when revealing himself to Lyn and Bob in the goat barn.
  • Enlightenment Superpowers: What the New Earth Army wants to trigger.
  • Evil Is Petty: Whether or not there's something real about it, striking a man with a Dim Mak attack, the mythical "death blow", which may have given him cancer, on top of getting him dishonorably discharged from the Army for the stupid thing you did is just plain being a disproportionately massive dick. Can't expect anything less from a bastard like Larry, though, who did it because Lyn was Bill's "teacher's pet".
  • Eye Scream: Lyn demonstrates that this is one of The Predator's uses.
  • Fate Worse than Death: Locking people in small rooms wherein you flash blinding strobe lights at them while continually playing the "I Love You" song from Barney & Friends as loud as you can without making them permanently deaf, until they break from sleep deprivation and sensory overload. Variations of this are actually Truth in Television.
  • Fun with Acronyms: PSIC
  • Godiva Hair: The hot tub scene(s).
  • Granola Guy: Bill is the General of Granola.
  • Hippie Teacher: Bill is one.
  • Historical Figures in Archival Media: George W. Bush appears in the opening credits as the catalyst for Bob heading to Iraq to cover the war.
  • Historical In-Joke: The movie claims that the U.S. Army's recruitment Catchphrase "Be all that you can be" was adopted two weeks after the New Earth Army was formed. This is Truth in Television: Lt. Col. Jim Channon, upon whom the character of Bill Django was based, really did write this slogan.
  • In Name Only: The film is a fictional story about the paranormal CIA department discussed in the book.
  • Instantly Proven Wrong: Lyn uses "intuition" to choose between identical dirt roads. After about 30 seconds, the road he picks turns out to be mined.
  • Karmic Death: Averted. Larry nearly kills himself in the same LSD haze that one of his "guinea pigs" did.
  • Kick the Dog: Larry takes a bag of Twizzlers off an employee's desk without even asking. What a dick!
  • Killed Offscreen: One of the more likely theories as to what happens to Bill and Lyn after the end of the movie. As Bob mentions in narration and the Army investigation pointed out, it was two guys with no knowledge of how to fly and high as a kite hijacking a helicopter — chances of crashing were pretty high.
  • Marijuana Is LSD: Inverted. Near the end of the movie Bob and Django spike the base's food with LSD. This makes people laugh and dance and overall act like they don't have a care in the world and everything is awesome. Nobody is reacting to things that aren't there or otherwise behaving like are experiencing vivid hallucinations.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: In theory, the whole movie is ambiguous about whether the psychic powers are real, delusions, or deliberate misdirection. The question is generally Played for Laughs (or drama, regarding whether or not Larry giving Lyn a Dim Mak strike when he was leaving the Army truly is the reason the latter got cancer. In the final shot, Bob is shown performing the running through walls trick Hopgood attempted at the beginning of the movie successfully. However, a second after he's shown doing so, a picture frame falls off the wall, implying that he could have actually slammed into it but imagined himself going through. Like every other "paranormal" incident in the movie, it's up to the viewer to decide.
  • Meaningful Echo: Bill tells Lyn during the flashbacks that "now, more than ever, we need the Jedi." This is repeated as the closing lines during the final scene.
  • Meaningful Name:
    • Bill Django could be a reference to Django Reinhardt, an eccentric guitarist.
    • PSIC can be pronounced "psych" or "sick".
  • Military Alphabet: Oscar Mike.
  • Mind Screw: This film is full of it. The mind control is implied to be fake, but yet in the last few moments of the film a man runs through a wall. Makes you wonder.
  • More than Mind Control: A few different forms, all of which are implied to be bullshit.
  • Never Found the Body: Bill and Lyn. The Army assumes their helicopter crashed or was shot down. Bob thinks they Ascended To A Higher Plane Of Existence.
  • No Animals Were Harmed: Don't worry, the American Humane Association can assure you the goats were fine.
  • "Not Making This Up" Disclaimer: The movie opens with [a mustachioed Colonel Quaritch getting up from a desk and deliberately running head-first into a wall. Cut to a title card stating "More of this story is true than you would believe." The juxtaposition is funny.
  • Not So Harmless: Nonlethal doesn't necessarily guarantee that the nonlethal object won't really, really hurt you.
  • The Noun Who Verbed: The title.
  • Ooh, Me Accent's Slipping: There are a few scenes in which Ewan McGregor is obviously trying to avoid using his regular accent and is failing miserably.
  • Porn Stache: Gen. Hopgood, Lyn and at the end of the film, Bob.
  • Private Military Contractors: They get the main characters caught up in a chaotic shootout at one point.
  • Psychic Dreams for Everyone
  • Psychic Powers: The members of the New Earth Army claim to have lots of them.
  • Real Men Wear Pink: Lyn Cassady owns and operates a dance studio when not on a mission - not as a cover; he just really likes dancing.
  • Riding into the Sunset: "Like all shaman, they returned to the sky."
  • Share the Male Pain: "He was also able to lift bags of sand on hooks... hung through his scrotum."
    "Uh, sir, what is the practical application of this?"
  • Shoot the Dog: Averted. It turns out the army had goats on hand because they couldn't do this - the goats were used to practice dressing wounds in the field, which meant they had to be shot in the leg first. They tried with dogs, but they couldn't bring themselves to actually shoot them.
  • Shout-Out:
    • The soldiers were referred to as "Jedi knights" (as were the real life counterpart First Earth Battalion soldiers).
    • See Call to Adventure.
    • The bizarre conversation between Brown and Hopgood fretting that "We can't afford to have the Russians leading the field in the paranormal" is strongly reminiscent of Turgidson complaining of a "mine shaft gap" with the Russians in Dr. Strangelove (this "psychic powers gap" was in fact a real fear for the US Army at the time).
    • "The silence of the goats."
    • The film also references Being There, especially the ending, echoing the Sellers film's tagline "Life is just a state of mind."
    • To Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead: when Lyn drives the car into a rock in the middle of the desert, he and Bob pass the time by flipping a coin that continually lands with the head side facing up, as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern do to begin the play.
    • The Drill Sergeant Nasty moment was more or less a direct quote from Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket.
  • Simple, yet Awesome: The Predator looks like a grooming gadget that can be purchased in an airport for a dozen bucks but in the hands of an expert hand-to-hand combatant it can assist in taking down an assailant in a dozen very painful ways, including eye-gouging.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: The protagonist starts out on the cynical side of the scale, but slides on over to the far idealistic side by the end. The movie itself is up to interpretation.
  • Smug Snake: Larry Hooper.
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: During the opening credits: upbeat music, "Alright" by Supergrass, played to clips of Bob packing and the 2003 Invasion of Iraq.
  • The Stoner: Bill, and most of the New Earth Army.
    Larry: Lieutenant Colonel Django used funds from the project's black budget to procure prostitutes...
    Bill: That's a lie!
    Larry: ...and to get drugs for himself and his men.
    Bill: That... (a beat) ...well, the hooker thing is definitely a lie.
    • By the time Bill Django is found working for Hooper, it seems that years of drug use and earlier failures have left him a permanent and almost crippled example of this. He may be deliberately giving this impression, though, since he later claims that "Over the years I've built a tolerance for all forms of narcotics."
  • Subliminal Seduction: The PSIC company gives soldiers music CDs containing subliminal messages such as "Don't get drunk before operating a machine gun."
  • Take Up My Sword: Lyn to Bob. In fact, at the end of the film, Bob is sporting Lyn's mustache and has become a Jedi.
  • Tampering with Food and Drink: Bob and Bill decide to sabotage PSIC by putting LSD in the powdered eggs, sending the whole camp on a trip. Bill also decides to put LSD in the water supply as well without telling Bob.
  • There Was a Door: With an M113 armored transport: "You're gonna hit the gate! You're gonna hit the gate!" crash "It's cool! You missed it!" as the transport flattens the fence.
  • Too Funny to Be Evil: How PSIC's "dark side" experiments get played in the press at the end of the movie. To be clear; this consisted of the revelation that US Forces were torturing prisoners being undercut by news anchors joking around about the Barney song being used as part of the process of torturing prisoners. In the book, Jon Ronson wonders if the ubiquity of the jokes might be a deliberate attempt to undercut the revelations. Which, to reiterate, were about torture.
  • Touch of Death: Lyn believes that his cancer was caused by a death touch performed on him by Larry almost 20 years before.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: Several of the main characters are based on real people, and the basic background about the training is based on actual experiments. As the opening puts it, "More of this is true than you would believe." How much? Read the First Earth Battalion Wikipedia article. Notably, the Actor Allusion criticized by so many reviews was real - McGregor has explained in interviews that they really did call themselves Jedi warriors, and even noted during filming the oddity of it after playing young Obi-Wan.
    • If nothing else what is true is that some very strange things can, do and have been funded and experimented with by armies and intelligence agencies when they manage to find the right patron, and there's even a vague suspicion that the Soviet Union may be experimenting with something similar.
    • In the case of the CIA and military's experiments with LSD, this version of the story is quite a bit tamer and less horrific than what actually happened (for instance, a CIA employee was given LSD without his knowledge and experienced a hallucination which caused him to jump out a window to his death).
    • The film is based on the factual book of the same name by investigative journalist Jon Ronson, a faux-naif in the same vein as Louis Theroux, who researched his material extensively in the USA and got a lot of off-the-record stuff from official sources.
    • The Iraqi propaganda leaflet taunting American soldiers that their wives were home having sex with Burt Reynolds and Bart Simpson? Truth in Television.
  • Walking Techbane: Hopgood only discovered Lyn because one day Lyn walked into a room and psychically bricked every computer in it as he walked past.
    Hopgood: Did you make those computers go out?
    Lin: (sadly sheepish) Yes, sir.
    Hopgood: (grinning broadly) Far out!
  • Weird Historical War: A very unusual Real Life example and actually invoked by Hopgood when he asks funding for the creation of the First Earth Battalion: maybe it's a whole lot of bupkis, but it also may be true, and in the case that it is true, America cannot allow the Russians to hold supremacy in the field of the paranormal.
  • Whole-Plot Reference: Think Apocalypse Now as a comedy and set in a desert.