November 18, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

The Men Who Stare at Goats, now playing at a theater near you, is a military comedy. It’s not M*A*S*H. It’s a mash-up – two mentalities: military and hippie.

Comedies are about mismatches. In military comedies, one of the mismatched elements is bureaucracy, especially its rule-bound lack of imagination, impersonality, and inability to adapt to novel events. These qualities are usually embodied by an authority, a high-ranking officer. Sometimes the authorities are benevolent, as in the fish-out-of water scenario. Here, the mismatch is that someone who was never meant to wear the uniform winds up in the Army. The authorities, with patience and firmness, manage to mold him or her (Pvt. Benjamin) into a soldier.

More typically, the mismatch is between the bureaucratic mentality of authorities and the human, fun-loving good guys, who are forever figuring out ways to get around the rules. The heroes are like little boys impishly scheming to have fun by fooling gruff old dad. But in the American version, the boys who ignore the regulations and the brass not only gain illicit pleasures (alcohol, sex, money); they also always turn out to be the ones who can actually accomplish important goals. They did it every week on M*A*S*H.

In The Men Who Stare at Goats, the Army creates a special program for soldiers to develop psychic superpowers. The program is sold to them largely by a former soldier (Jeff Bridges) who has done the hippie trip and now returns to train a select group of soldiers, the dippy dozen. The brass in their spotless uniforms give him great latitude, since they are looking for anything that can help win the Cold War. The soldiers let their hair grow long, do yoga, and try to develop supernatural abilities, like the ability to kill or at least stun animals by staring at them. Or to walk through walls.

Neither mentality comes off very well. The New Age ideas seem ridiculous, especially as military applications, and the military looks foolish too for being so desperate to beat the Soviets that they’ll believe this stuff. In an emblematic moment early in the film, we see an officer in full uniform psych himself up and try to walk through a wall at full speed. The result is inevitable.
That’s the gag that gets repeated throughout the movie – every time someone (usually George Clooney) tries to use these psychic powers, reality thwarts them, but they still continue to believe.

The message, one that is repeated not just on every episode of M*A*S*H but in many American movies, is this: acting on the basis of ideology is bad, whether that ideology is New Age or Cold War; acting on the basis of personal feelings for others is good. In Goats, what makes us like George Clooney is that despite his nutty ideas that never work, he doesn’t let the ideas get in the way of his more human impulses.

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