My dad would have thought that The Men Who Stare at Goats was funny. His humor was a combination of machismo and self-parody. When I was three years old, for example, he told me a story about getting trapped in a box canyon by a bunch of angry Indians.
“I looked to the left of me, and there was nothing but the walls of the canyon. I looked to the right of me. Nothing but canyon. I looked behind me. Canyon. In front of me: angry Indians.”
“What happened, dad?”
“Son.” Heavy, serious, scruffy, sad face. “Son. Son. They killed me.”
Reminder: I was three years old. I thought that that was the funniest thing anybody had ever said to me. It probably was.
George Clooney displays the same outrageous kind of macho deadpan here, playing Lyn Cassady, a former US Army-trained psychic and “Jedi Warrior” fallen on hard times. Watching him explain what a Jedi Warrior is to Ewan MacGregor, young Obi-Wan himself, is one of my favorite moments.
“Oh,” says Clooney, “then I had to use the sparkly eyes technique.”
Clooney stares at him with wide eyes. “See that? Did you catch it? See?”
MacGregor allows that he does.
“More of this is true than you would believe,” a caption tells us at the beginning of the movie. Personally, I believe all of it. The idea that a bunch of straight-laced Army brass would become convinced that they could train themselves, or their subordinates, to walk through walls, juggle space and time, and control people with the power of their own minds, is not so far-fetched at all. When macho men show their complexity, they often do so in the terms defined by their boyhood fantasies. My dad, who grew up in the fifties, spoke his paradoxes in the language of cowboys and Indians. I grew up with Jedi knights and GI Joe, as did, apparently, everybody involved in making this movie. That those boyhood fantasies motivate some people eventually into the real military is unsurprising. They’re almost patently designed to do that. Why, then, would we be surprised that the fantasies remain, superimposed on top of the reality of Army (for example) life?
Like machismo generally, the Jedi warrior (or superhero, or cowboy, or whatever) delusion is both adorable and dangerous, when it manifests in the real world: adorable because it points to the innocence of the boy who wants to be a hero; dangerous because — well, yeah. If you don’t get that part, no phrase of mine will make it stick in your head.
I liked this movie a lot. You should see it, if you haven’t.