Men Who Stare at Goats

A Movie Review by David Morehouse

I give up!  Over the past few months I’ve been asked to write a series of film reviews by what now seems to be hundreds of people.  While I do not fancy myself a film critic, watching movies has been a passion, a hobby of mine for many years.  I probably see 2-4 films a week, and unfortunately I am disappointed far more often than I am impressed or entertained by what finally makes it to the screen.

I am so frequently shocked by how bad films are that I have taken to giving the director to the end of the first act to capture my attention or I will ask for my money back.  I get my money back a lot.

Being a Remote Viewer has its advantages in life, but knowing in advance which films will be worth seeing is not one of them.  By the way, it doesn’t work for books either.  Eventually you simply have to read the book or see the film in order to offer any intelligent critique and even then, much like viewing, it is all based on your experience rolodex and what you perceive in the moment.  There are no absolutes, especially when it comes to forming an opinion about the work of others.  However, here is one absolute: I never stared at goats.  

I was not a Suspect Zero either, but as fate would have it, only two weeks ago I met a close friend of the producer and heard the insider version on how Remote Viewing was attached to that story.  Yes, I will share that anecdote in my review of that film—when I get to it.

I was never part of LTC Channon’s work.  I heard about it when I was in 1st Ranger Battalion in Savannah, Georgia, but then we heard about a lot of things back then.  My recollection (now 30 + years ago) was rumor about a “manual” circulating within the special operations community and a number of young officers who spoke of a bizarre manual that discussed something called “Evolutionary Tactics”.  The SOF community was still relatively new.  Post Grenada, it was trying to merge Rangers, SF, and others as well as stand up a special operations command and a joint version of the command.  It was a time of changes and an endless quest for the “perfect force” and the “ultimate warrior”.  LTC Channon was one of those individuals who broke the ice and presented a new possibility to the force.  I guess you could say his efforts laid the ground work for what was to follow for me; but that is another story.

In my Remote Viewing classes, since 1997, I have always mentioned LTC Channon’s work, and his pioneering efforts to do something, well, extraordinary during rather ordinary times.  When I finally got my hands on a copy of the manual and other briefing slides, I would show them to students the world over in an effort to inspire them before beginning their journey with Remote Viewing.  My sense is Remote Viewing became possible in the military because it was born from the early efforts to explore human ability and to let us “Be all we can be”.  In my opinion, LTC Channon is  one of the early heroes in this work; he was an enhanced human performance “pioneer”.  I want to say we all owe LTC Channon a great debt of gratitude and a high degree of respect.  If it counts for anything coming from me—thank you, for all that you did.  You changed countless lives.

Men Who Stare at GoatsWith that, here is my first (requested) film review, that of the NOV 2009 film, The Men Who Stare at Goats, directed by Grant Heslov, and written by Peter Staughan, inspired by the book by the same title, which was written by Jon Ronson.  And yes, it is a short review of Jon Ronson’s book as well; it is difficult to comment on one without the other.

To begin, this is one of those rare occasions where the movie is far greater than the book.  It is a better story, better told, and far funnier than the sad sack presentations in the book.  In Ronson’s book, from which the movie title comes and the story is very loosely based, a serious reader looking for unit history will find themselves wrapped in a strangely dismissive “version” of the lives, vision, and Cold-war heroics of those associated with the First Earth Battalion and Remote Viewing.

It doesn’t matter if the Secretary of the Army endorsed it, all that matters in Ronson’s story is that it was controversial and the folks involved were not the usual suspects, or perhaps they were the “perfect subjects for a book that ever so carefully denigrates them.  Ronson could care less if you were a 2-star general or an E-7, if you were affiliated with these programs, you are of questionable worth to the US military, you are obviously strange for believing in the possibility of the First Earth battalion, or you were insane; whatever Ronson wants you to be.

The movie is not really about the book.  Yes it uses the title, and screen credits are given, but if you see the movie, you will find there are few parallels except for main ideas.  And, if you wait through the lengthy credits at the end of the movie, you will see the studio states very clearly the movie is fiction; however, two characters from the book are carried into the film, LTC Jim Channon and one of his disciples.  It is not about anyone else in the Remote Viewing community.  I am quite amazed to read the accounts of so many former members of the RV (military) community, and others laying claim to this character or that character.  It isn’t you!  Really, it isn’t.  In fairness I recently had a student email and say they believed the Ewan McGregor’s character was based on me.  I thanked them, and promptly explained, “No, Ewen McGregor was not playing me.  I truly appreciate the compliment, but it isn’t me.”

On the book; if you extract the pages involving the Art Bell radio shows, interviews with individuals who had nothing to do with LTC Jim Channon’s work, the book can be distilled down into a few pages that once again tell a “version” of the “history” on the subject, as seen from the tongue-in-cheek perspective of a skeptic with a smirk on his face.

The question is, “What story are you trying to tell?”  What was the purpose of  recounting a horrible miscalculation exacerbated by a juvenile setup?  I don’t get it.  I truly like Courtney Brown, and Ed Dames, but you are talking about the student (Brown) of a Monitor (Dames), and then the student (Calabrese) of the student of the monitor.  I’m confused already.

In my opinion, Ronson’s book was horribly typical.  Fortunately, Heslov and Stughan rescued the cynical pop angle about military psychics and their new age efforts to do something different in the post-Vietnam “all volunteer” VOLAR Army, and fortunately brought some humor into the world in doing it.  Bravo!

Debut director Grant Heslov stitches together the story which stars his business partner George Clooney.  The two have been working together for some time now, and suffice it to say, if Clooney were not present in this movie, it would have come and gone in a few days, if that.

While the screenplay is clever, the lines could not have been delivered except by a handful of actors with any degree of success.  Casting got it right, this time, and of course, the Actor/Producer and Director came as a team.  The facial expressions and verbal sparring between Clooney, Ewan McGregor and the “over-the-top” character of Jeff Bridges are definitely what made the movie.  Nothing against Kevin Spacey, but he was not in his strongest role.  In my book Clooney is one of the finest actors of our era, and his character makes this movie.

Screen writer Peter Staughan masterfully extracted a story for the screen from Ronson’s book.  This was Staughan’s best screen effort so far, as his last work “How to Win Friends and Influence Enemies”, met with extremely poor reviews.  Regardless, he does a great job taking motivation from Ronson’s book and constructing a movie that is comical and entertaining.

Heslov and Staughan didn’t have much to work with.  Ronson, a British skeptic is a Hunter S. Thompson wannabe, who much like his pal Jim Schnabel spends a great deal of time molding his dislike and disbelief into the story he tells.  Ronson’s credits Schnabel’s work in the book as being critical to the quality of several of his chapters.  Schnabel has also been identified as a devout skeptic linked to CSICOP and other skeptic groups, and claims to be an investigative journalist and science writer.  There are definite parallels in their work.  Ronson does not disappoint the skeptics in his book, which was his intended outcome.

Both Schnabel and Ronson have found a niche in the style of writing that blends facts and fiction told in the first person called “Gonzo Journalism”.  If you aren’t familiar with the term, please do some research and become familiar with it.  Next time you see another “investigative journalist” writing a tell all “insider” book about the lives of others—remember the definition of the term and apply it generously to the work.  I don’t care if you want to blend facts and fiction—but have the courage to state that clearly to the reader.  Don’t pretend to be a journalist with all that entails, and then shape your story to fit your agenda—it is dishonest.

Every book Schnabel and Ronson have written has been a series of carefully crafted asteisms, to ingeniously mock and ridicule everyone associated with the topic of choice (my review of Schnabel and Ronson’s books will follow in other articles—I promise).  It is unfair these guys get to deliberately destroy lives, twist facts, embarrass individuals, tell lies, and take credit for work that is not their own.  They don’t get to walk away with their versions of everyone’s lives and contributions to history, stealing honor and diminishing the work of others through their words—and call it “investigative journalism”.

In a nutshell Ronson’s book is a skeptic’s guide to the universe of the US military involvement in the paranormal, and the movie (completely separate from the book) is “Tropic Thunder” meets “Hot Shots” for the First Earth Battalion, Remote Viewing and everything it ever meant to anyone associated with those efforts who served in the military.

The movie is a spoof, a comedy, and if you want to laugh (a lot) go see it—I highly recommend it for that purpose.  But do not pay the $14.00 thinking you are going to hear the truth, or come away with some sense of the honor, desire or intention of those who spent time in the 1970’s and 1980’s working in these various programs.  It isn’t there.

So what is good about this movie? It is well written, it is well directed, and most of all it is well acted.  You might laugh your butt off as long as you let go of the outcome and have no attachment to the story.  As the film winds down into the final minutes, your sort of get this peaceful sense that it doesn’t really matter what the shallow minority might say or think.  You get it; this was important stuff.  You come away with a gentle “knowing” that you were part of an age where people in the greatest killing machine on the planet decided there was something beyond what the physical world allowed.  The highest ranking officials in the Army recognized there was something there, that perhaps it could not be defined, but it was there making us better for wanting it, seeking it, reaching for it, even hoping it.  At some point it became clear we are all part of something that can inspire greatness in each of us during the journey inward and beyond.

Thank you LTC Jim Channon.

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