I wanted to watch The Men Who Stare at Goats for one main reason. And if you guess because Ewan McGreggor is in it, you’re right. Kind of.
Mr. McGreggor certainly isn’t ugly, but his main attraction for me was that he played Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars. And The Men Who Stare at Goats is basically a two hour Star Wars joke.
And I’m okay with that, because I’m the kind of Star Wars fangirl who gets X-wings tattoos, dresses up like Mara Jade at Star Wars cons and covers her office in wall-to-wall posters (my favorites being a Celebration IV exclusive print of Vader killing the Emperor, a Japanese poster of R2-D2 jetpacking over a derivative of Hokusai’s famous “Great Wave off Kanagawa” painting and a map of the galaxy that came in one issue of Star Wars Insider many many moons ago).
After the movie (Men Who Stare at Goats, not Star Wars) ended, I had a feeling that it wasn’t really a very good movie, but I thought it was awesome anyway. The main problem I had with Goats is not that it’s one giant Star Wars joke (that part was awesome), but that the story never quite got off the ground.
I’m going to blame the complex narration and use of extensive flashbacks for that. Ewan McGreggor narrates the story from the present. He tells us how his wife left him and he went off to Iraq and met George Clooney’s character.
And then, throughout their journey, we get flashbacks to the 1980s when the army was playing around with making these psychic super warriors. Sometimes we get flashbacks within flashbacks. Eventually everything gets wrapped up, but the problem is that we’re following two, and sometimes three story lines, as the flashbacks comprise at least half of the movie.
McGreggor and Clooney do a lot of sitting around, which is when Clooney tells McGreggor his story. Even though we don’t see them sitting around a lot because of the flashbacks, it’s kind of tiring to have them sitting in the desert alone for so long. That being said, the flashbacks are done extremely well and are easy to follow.
In one sense too much is going on, and in another sense nothing is going on, and it creates frustration for the viewer. I do admire director Grant Heslov’s ability to navigate these multiple layers of narration, but I don’t think they quite work here.
Another problem is that this movie is based on a documentary (you can read about it on Wikipedia here), so it’s trying to impose a narrative structure on a story that doesn’t necessarily have any.
Again, the plot does accomplish what it sets out to do in satirizing the ridiculousness of the military and war in Iraq, but it still falls flat, perhaps because it’s trying to do too much. Or perhaps because it’s a comedy, so you can never be sure what’s included solely for comedic effect, or how much of the movie is based on the “truth.”
In the end, I think it’s worth watching for the acting (which is excellent), the Star Wars jokes and the layered narrative, but considering the title is The Men Who Stare at Goats, there were not enough goats!
A version of this post originally appeared on my now-defunct metafiction blog, The Narrative in the Blog, in March 2011.