The Men Who Stare At Goats by Jon Ronson - Book Review

Rather spoiling the final paragraph of this review for people who like that sort of thing to be kept as a surprise: I picked Jon Ronson's book up after catching the trailer for the imminent film adaptation. The reasons for this were mainly two-fold; 1) if something is a book first and a film second I'd always rather read it in print first although, frequently, this proves difficult and secondly, like many films, the adaptation of Goats claimed to be 'based on a true story' (or to be more accurate 'based on a story so extraordinary, you won't believe its true').

Ronson's book is his account of various events which happened over a period of about 2 years centering around his investigation into how the US military attempted to use and promote the 'supernatural' abilities of some of its soldiers. Starting with an account of a General who has tried (and failed) on a regular basis for a huge number of years to walk through his office wall, Ronson's book charts the sometimes spectacular, regularly hilarious exploits of the US Army's own 'Jedi Warriors'.

Once I'd finished reading the first chapter of Goats (which details the above 'walking through walls' exploits) I thought it was going to go one of two ways; either Ronson was going to focus on the hilarity of the events and turn it into a Jospeh Heler style satirical comedy, or we would get a bit of polemical soap-box raving about what the world's biggest superpower spends its money on.

In fact, we get neither. Ronson knows that he doesn't need to play the events for cheap laughs in his narrative, what transpires, from the general upwards and onwards, is funny enough without Ronson manipulating the language to get his reader's rolling on the floor. Likewise, whilst the book doesn't shove anti-American sentiment down your throat it does have a heart and sole and Ronson doesn't need to lay it on thick when events take a turn for the worse. It is a very measured and appropriately restrained approach which works wonders for the integrity and readability of Ronson's work. If this story had of been seized upon by Michael Moore I doubt we would of got the same end result.

There are some minor faults with Goats that just ensure it falls short of classic investigative journalism. Towards the end of the book and presumably, the end of his research, Ronson becomes very interested in the case of a CIA consultant who apparently lept to his death from a hotel window and the son of the consultant who has stopped at nothing to try and prove his father's death wasn't suicide. It's an admirable and captivating tale, but one that doesn't really feel like it belongs in these pages. Ronson struggles to link it back to the men who do the goat staring in the main sections of the book which is probably because any link really is a tenuous one.

In all though and despite Ronson struggling to conclude his narrative (it's not as if his investigation was ever going to come to a definitive end) this is a work that captivates and shocks. Some of the methods the US military employ throughout the story are truly jaw-dropping but at the same time, frighteningly hilarious.

Film Prospects

The film version to The Men Who Stare At Goats is due for release in America in November and England in January. It stars Ewan McGregor and George Clooney and is a fictionalised adaptation of many of the events Jon Ronson describes in his book. As such, all of the character names have been changed however, all can be found to match real-life characters in Ronson's book. McGregor plays a version of Ronson himself.

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