Walking Through Walls And Staring At Goats

The new George Clooney movie, The Men Who Stare at Goats, is filled with tough-to-believe notions. Here's one — the U.S. Army teaching one of its squads how to walk through walls. Or how about stopping the hearts of goats just by staring at them? Sounds crazy, but author Jon Ronson tells host Guy Raz that the Army really tried those techniques and others in the late '70s and early '80s. Ronson wrote the book that became the basis for the movie.

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GUY RAZ, host:

Not too long after September 11, 2001, British journalist Jon Ronson came upon a story that was so fantastic, so absurd, that he had to find out whether there was anything to it.

Now, back in the late 1970s and early '80s, a group of Army intelligence officers and NCOs set up a crack unit of military operatives along the lines of New Age philosophy. The result of Ronson's research was the book, "The Men Who Stare at Goats."

The movie version, starring George Clooney, Jeff Bridges and Kevin Spacey, is in theaters this weekend. Here's a clip with actor Ewan McGregor.

(Soundbite of film, "The Men Who Stare at Goats")

Mr. EWAN McGREGOR (Actor): (As Bob Wilton) My name is Bob Wilton. I'm a journalist. I've been investigating a story about a classified government program. I've heard that the U.S. government was training psychic soldiers and that Lyn Cassidy was the best of the best. Lyn's story was unbelievable, crazy, and completely true.

RAZ: Completely true? Well, let's try to separate truth from fiction with the author of the book, Jon Ronson, who's in our London studio.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. JON RONSON (Author, "The Men Who Stare at Goats"): Hi, thank you for having me.

RAZ: I noticed that Ewan McGregor plays a journalist in the film, so he's clearly based on you, right?

Mr. RONSON: By and large. I mean, some of the characters in the film are based very much on real people. Jeff Bridges' character is one man, a lieutenant colonel called Jim Channon. And Ewan's character is sort of me and sort of not.

RAZ: The character played by George Clooney is named Lyn Cassidy, the Special Forces operative involved in all these kind of hair-brained psychic operations and schemes, is a composite of many different people you've met.

Mr. RONSON: He's mainly based on a man called Glenn Wheaton, who really started the whole story for me. And I knew he was part of this unit, this secret unit called Project Jedi. And I didn't really know anything about it. And he explained that it was a series of levels.

He said level one was teaching the soldier to eat only nuts and grains for a month. And I said, okay, what's level two? He said level two was invisibility. So, I said that, yeah, that's a big leap from level one to level two. I said, well, actual invisibility? And he said, yeah, but after a while we adapted it to just trying to find a way of not being seen.

RAZ: There's a moment in the movie where a character named Colonel Bill Django, played by Jeff Bridges, is trying to sell the top Army brass on this idea of creating a military unit called The New Earth Army. And in this scene that we're about to hear, Django has a - he wears his hair in a long braid, and he's passing out daisies to the uniformed men listening.

(Soundbite of film, "The Men Who Stare at Goats")

Mr. JEFF BRIDGES (Actor): (As Colonel Bill Django) You have to dream a new America, an America that no longer has an exploitative view of natural resources, no longer promotes consumption at all costs. And to achieve this dream, we must become the first superpower to develop superpowers. We must create warrior monks, men and women who can fall in love with everyone, sense plant auras, pass through walls, stop saying mindless clich�s and see into the future.

RAZ: Is this real? Was there really a proposal to set something up called The New Earth Army?

Mr. RONSON: Yeah. In real life, it was called the First Earth Battalion. I think we need to know when this was happening. And it was mainly happening in the late '70s, early '80s. And two things happened around then, which fed into this, and one was the failure in Vietnam, which I think made the United States military depressed and in a funk and looking for new ways.

And then the other thing that was happening was that the Californian New Age Human Potential Movement was blossoming. And the military, being quite sort of extreme, out-of-the-box thinkers anyway, took the craziest New Age ideas and tried to adopt these for the soldier. And it had an impact.

I mean, one of the most powerful people who became inspired by Jim Channon's idea is General Albert Stubblebine, who was head of Army Intelligence at the time. He had 16,000 soldiers under his command.

RAZ: This is a two-star general.

Mr. RONSON: Yes. And he spent a lot of his time - he was so inspired by Jim's words he tried to walk through his wall in Arlington, Virginia, and just kept bumping his nose, tried to levitate, had spoon-bending parties. But, you know, I rather liked the idea that the United States Army were unembarrassed to try these crazy things out. I think that reflects well on them.

RAZ: Well, let's hear another scene from the film. This is when the character Lyn Cassidy asks the journalist, Bob Wilton, to choke him. And Cassidy said he's going to use mind control to subdue Wilson before he can even approach Cassidy. It doesn't work, so he basically just beats him up.

(Soundbite of film, "The Men Who Stare at Goats")

Mr. GEORGE CLOONEY (Actor): (As Lyn Cassady) See, I barely moved. You felt fear, though, in the beginning?

Mr. McGREGOR: (As Bob Wilton) Yes.

Mr. CLOONEY: (As Lyn Cassady) Would you say that that level of fear was abnormal?

Mr. McGREGOR: (As Bob Wilton) Well, I don't know. I was pretty terrified anyway. But the fear I felt on the run up to the choking was, you know, unusual.

Mr. CLOONEY: (As Lyn Cassady) You know why? 'Cause it wasn't you, it was me. I was inside your head fighting with the mind.

RAZ: Jon Ronson, this actually happened to you. You write about it in the book. There was a man named Pete Brusso. What happened?

Mr. RONSON: Well, he said choke me with - he did that quotation mark thing with his fingers, which I found slightly patronizing. I mean, the fact is is that Pete Brusso was about, you know, eight times the size of me. I'm a tiny - just so your listeners can get a mental picture - I'm a tiny, owl-like, little Jewish man. And Pete Brusso is a huge man, plus a very, you know, maestro of violence, a very aggressive man.

He said he was going to just touch me and I would fly. And I filmed this, and I played the tape back and I could see that he actually gave me a really big push. Nonetheless, I sort of believed in the kind of pragmatic, paranormal application at that point, because he said he was doing to me basically what they did to the goat.

RAZ: Were you ever able to witness members of this unit stop a goat's heart by staring at it?

Mr. RONSON: What I did see - I discovered that the main goat starer was a man called Guy Savelli. And I said, is it true that you managed to kill a goat by staring at it? And he said yes. And I said, do you still practice the technique? And he said, as a matter of fact, only last week, I killed my hamster just by staring at it.

So, he played me a tape of him staring at his hamsters apparently for three days - they don't just die straightaway. And sure enough, about halfway through the tape, they suddenly just dropped to the floor. And I said, oh, you've done it. And he said yeah.

And then, you know, just before the tape ended, the hamster gets up and brushes itself down and carries on eating. So, it's a kind of inconclusive thought the video at best. But it's always inconclusive. I don't believe that any of these paranormal things actually works, but I do believe that they, you know, gave it a go.

RAZ: Obviously, a lot of the movie is pure fiction. But do you think the movie does a good job of capturing the story anyway?

Mr. RONSON: I think the movie does something different than what my book does. My book is very funny in the first half and then takes this dark lurch in tone. And I think what Grant Heslov and George Clooney decided to do was to make a much more humanistic, warm-hearted film about the war. Almost like - I don't know if they'd like this analogy - but almost like kind of "Little Miss Sunshine" goes to war. And I thoroughly enjoyed it on those terms. So, it's different to my book, but I really, really like it.

RAZ: Jon Ronson is the author of the book, "The Men Who Stare at Goats." It's the basis for the film of the same name, which came out this weekend.

Thanks so much.

Mr. RONSON: Thank you very much.

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'Men Who Stare At Goats': GIs Use Their Third Eyes

George Clooney and Kevin Spacey in 'The Men Who Stare At Goats' i

Free All That You Can Be: George Clooney and Kevin Spacey play members of a New Age Army unit whose special skills include cloudbursting and spirit channeling. When the unit's leader goes missing, all signs point to a renegade member. Laura Macgruder hide caption

itoggle caption Laura Macgruder
George Clooney and Kevin Spacey in 'The Men Who Stare At Goats'

Free All That You Can Be: George Clooney and Kevin Spacey play members of a New Age Army unit whose special skills include cloudbursting and spirit channeling. When the unit's leader goes missing, all signs point to a renegade member.

Laura Macgruder

The Men Who
Stare At Goats

  • Director: Grant Heslov
  • Genre: Comedy
  • Running Time: 93 minutes

Rated R: Language, brief nudity, drugs

With: George Clooney, Kevin Spacey, Jeff Bridges and Ewan McGregor

The Men Who Stare at Goats sounds like an ethnographic documentary about the Bushmen of the Kalahari. But if you're expecting something like that, you're going to be surprised.

Instead, first-time director Grant Heslov has come up with a quirky comedic fiction inspired by one of the strangest true stories about the modern American Army: In the late '70s, as journalist Jon Ronson reported in his book of the same name, some high-ranking officers preached that the techniques and beliefs of the New Age counterculture could transform military practice, and they tried to put some of those techniques to work. The goal, as Jeff Bridges' long-haired, laid-back Bill Django puts it in Goats: "We must become the first superpower to develop superpowers; we must create warrior monks, men and women who can fall in love with everyone, sense plant auras, pass through walls ... and see into the future."

That dream never really came together, and The Men Who Stare at Goats isn't a complete success either. But it's worth watching nonetheless, not least because it's a showcase for a group of actors — Bridges, George Clooney, Kevin Spacey — who really appreciate its particular brand of farce.

Clooney plays a soldier who has a special gift for staring at goats so hard that bad things happen. To the goats. He also practices breaking up clouds with his mind, and likes to say things like, "We're Jedi; we don't fight with guns."

Clooney is a funny guy, often when you least expect it, and he's matched here stride for stride by Bridges as the ultimate military hippie, and Spacey in the small but juicy role of the organization's Darth Vader. The problem is that we don't get to these guys until 15 or 20 minutes into the picture. Instead we have to deal with a boring journalist played by Ewan McGregor before the fun can start.

The Men Who Stare at Goats is at its best when it talks about the origins of this New Age Army. It all started, apparently, with an earnest general, one Albert Stubblebine III, who was so worried that the Russians would get the psychological-weapons jump on us that he personally tried to walk through walls. It didn't work.

There doesn't seem to be enough story here to make a whole movie, but seeing the film's practiced farceurs at work can't help but be amusing. A lot more fun, anyway, than trying to will yourself through a wall.

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