Anyone who has more than a passing knowledge of M*A*S*H might well be forgiven if they find the apparently real-life characters screenwriter Peter Straughan infused into Jon Ronson’s bestselling book of the same name (The Men Who Stare at Goats) seem like a revival of the brilliant ‘70s satire with much of the focus moved from a South Korean mobile military hospital to an experimental psych ward in Iraq.
Playing Lyn Cassay, the master of “remote view”, George Clooney excels in his characterization of a psychic with a cause who, amongst other superpowers learned at the New Age knee of Bill Django (Jeff Bridges most certainly in his hippie element), can stare a goat down into its grave or find missing persons thousands of kilometres away. Substitute the single malt scotch for homemade gin and it isn’t hard to picture Hawkeye Pierce delivering the deadpan lines. Similarly, it isn’t much of a stretch to imagine BJ Hunnicut’s persona as Ewan McGregor, who has a fine outing playing small-town reporter Bob Wilton who is desperate to find a BIG story in the unending heat of battle and win back the heart of his fickle bride—she’s dumped him in favour of a one-armed editor. Curiously, his frequent voiceovers have an occasional tinge of Radar’s ever-eager if somewhat naive view of the world.
A near carbon copy of the perpetually jealous Frank Burns is Kevin Spacey’s perfectly toned and timed portrayal of Larry Hopper whose voracious appetite for one-upmanship and revenge is only stalled by LSD in his breakfast eggs (such a mind-boggling scheme is the stuff of which made M*A*S*H such a long-running—1972-83—favourite of military and civilians alike).
The original commanding officer in the series (Lieutenant Colonel Henry Blake) finds his echo in Stephen Lang’s marvellously droll rendition of Brigadier General Dean Hopgood—a true believer to the point of personal injury in the awesome potential of harnessing minds-over-matter in the name of peace.
Using the oh-so-appropriate technique of flashback (all the better to trip on), the tale of top-secret experimentation into fully exploiting the power of the brain provides all manner of subliminal or side-splitting humour. Where else but in the New Earth Army could one recruit (Arron Shriver as Norm Pendleton exudes “Be all you can be”) become part of an over-ambitious superior (er, hello there Frank) and walk onto the packed parade square wearing nothing but his service revolver? Shades of a scene from Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (“This is my rifle, this is my gun / This is for fighting, this is for fun”) come flooding back to the imagination.
Rolfe Kent’s original score (played with much skill by the Northwest Sinfonia) is a marvel of musical satire that deftly incorporates the somewhat cheesy styles and hues of the ‘70s to further reinforce the writers’ intent. The peppy, string-rich, hand-clap spiced orchestrations (notably the opening segment of the “bombtage” and fall of Saddam Hussein that bursts onto the screen) are the perfect foil to the death and destruction so necessary to keep the planet safe and sound. The generous helping of tracks from the likes of Generation X, Kasbah Rockers, Supergrass and The Swinging Blue Jeans are at one with the back-story sequences, keeping the ear entertained and amused in tandem with the narrative.
Inspired by “a real-life story you will hardly believe is actually true,” the fun actually starts for viewers who try to separate fact from fiction. But the psychics reading this already knew I was going to say that. JWR