Take a true story and it’s rarely interesting when told factually. Most true stories have long periods of time when nothing exciting happens and that makes true stories less interesting. When turning a true story into fiction, you have to condense, trim, and modify facts to form a coherent story.
“The Men Who Stare at Goats” markets itself as a war comedy based on a true story. Surprisingly, almost everything mentioned in the movie is true, and that’s its downfall.
Parading a bunch of facts, no matter how bizarre, simply makes the movie less of a story and more like an encyclopedia. Anyone ever think an encyclopedia listing is more fun than a story?
That’s the hazard when adopting facts to a story. “The Men Who Stare at Goats” works about halfway, then falls apart. If you haven’t seen the movie, the basic idea is that a small town newspaper reporter learns of an oddball psychic Army unit that tries to use psychic powers as a military weapon. This newspaper reporter interviews some people he thinks are nuts and then travels to Iraq to cover the war.
While waiting to cross into Iraq, he meets one of these psychic warriors who agrees to lead him into Iraq on a secret mission that’s so secret that even he doesn’t know what it is. While demonstrating his psychic powers, this psychic warrior gets the newspaper reporter almost killed when they’re captured, manage to escape, and continue on their way.
The facts are funny, the story is weak because it lacks a true threatening villain who is pursuing a goal with Horrible Consequences. Think of “Star Wars” with the Death Star. If Darth Vader succeeds, his goal will cause Horrible Consequences that we don’t want to see. Think of “Avatar” where if the human villains succeed, they’ll destroy the alien’s habitat forever, which we don’t want to see.
In “The Men Who Stare at Goats,” the villain has no overall plan with Horrible Consequences. As a result, the ending is particularly weak and a major let down while the second half of the movie is a let down since it loses its absurdist comedy aspects and focuses more on facts than telling a good story.
Everything in “The Men Who Stare at Goats” actually happened from soldiers attempting to walk through walls to trying to remotely view locations without physically going there. However, this parade of facts feels jumbled, incoherent, and unconnected in any way to the main story, which is about a news reporter discovering the existence of these psychic warriors.
If you rent this movie, watch it to see what works for you and what doesn’t. It’s not a great movie, but it’s interesting because it could have been funnier, more consistent, and more coherent in its story. When you see a movie that isn’t that good, always look at what they did right and wrong and you’ll start seeing how you can avoid making those same mistakes in your own screenplays.
Now you’ll just have to hope that Hollywood doesn’t mangle your screenplay beyond recognition and stick you with the credit (blame) of creating a bad movie when they didn’t follow your script in the first place, but that’s beyond your control.