As source material, Joseph Heller’s 1961 novel Catch-22 is a beast of very rare burden. Maddeningly satirical and totally absurd, readers are often forced into fits of laughter, somehow, while being told the atrocities of war. The prevailing logic is sensical, but circular and dense. Case in point: the notorious conditions by which a member of an aircraft can be grounded from duty, which state that if an individual is insane, they can be excused, but if they ask to be excused, it’s proof that they are not insane and instead are completely sane, which means they must continue to fly. (“That’s some catch, that Catch-22.”)
This structure makes the novel notoriously difficult to adapt for the screen. The first section of the novel follows a single timeline and occurs in the then-present of 1944, but is told from a proliferation of viewpoints. It then focuses on a single event—the “Great Big Siege of Bologna”—which occurred in the past, before jumping back to the “present.” The handful of chapters that follow focus solely on the growth of The Syndicate, an off-the-books, multi-national organization which traded food and supplies between countries and bases during WWII, running alongside the plot of the “present,” which then takes center stage again. By the final bit, the mood has shifted dramatically. All humor is lost, and the true horror of combat is laid bare.
That Heller’s debut has often been called un-adaptable, then, is no surprise—even Heller agrees. As the author once said, “Put the events in chronological order, and you’ll find an uneventful story about a bombardier and a colonel who wants his men to fly more missions than anyone else.” So it’s not surprising that most of the Catch-22 adaptations since the book was published have failed. Mike Nichols’ 1970 film attempt—which had the theoretically good timing of arriving during the Vietnam War—favored a sketch-comedy approach and featured Alan Arkin as John Yossarian, a disillusioned bombardier desperate to leave the war and get back home, but debuted to unenthusiastic reviews and lukewarm box office results. In 1973, a pilot which starred Richard Dreyfuss as the famed character, was televised but was so poorly received that a second episode was never greenlit.
This week, Hulu’s six-part miniseries arrives and, as it turns out, all the former iterations were missing was a certain Je ne sais Clooney. “There is never a bad time to talk about the insanity of war,” the actor-director told EW, discussing the project helmed by both he and Grant Heslov (Argo, The Monuments Men). (They each, along with Ellen Kuras, directed two episodes.) He’s right—and it’s his hyper focus on that reality, rather than an exhaustive desire to stay loyal to the kaleidoscopic construction of his source, that helps his episodes win and, ultimately, honor his inspiration.
Rather than explore the wide variety of viewpoints Heller favored, Clooney and Heslov streamline things, here, telling this Catch-22 primarily from Yossarian’s vantage. It makes the character, handled by the magnetic Christopher Abbott (Girls), more compelling; his evolution more nuanced and, in many ways, the feeling of its inevitability, more profound. In the beginning, as he’s quick to tell the Chaplain, his resident nurse, and anyone else who will listen, he is one of the only sane individuals on base. He’s desperate to beat the convoluted, bureaucratic war machine and go home. By the end, he’s naked but for the blanket of blood covering his body, screaming on the tarmac. Home is hardly a memory.
And while this adaptation has been referred to as a dark comedy, that’s almost certainly just because Heller’s novel was, truly, funny. Here, “bleak” is a more fare descriptor of tone, and there are long stretches where “comedy” feels like too wild an exaggeration. In fact, it’s unlikely that you’ll find yourself actually laughing at any point across these six episodes. (You will, though, find yourself in awe of the cinematography. Handled by Martin Ruhe, the world of this Catch-22, awash with the crystalline blue of the Mediterranean Sea and beer bottles glinting in the slanting light, is absolutely spellbinding.)
Instead, Clooney’s scenes as the overzealous parade officer Scheisskopf amuse. And Kyle Chandler, who is probably better at yelling on camera than just about anyone else in Hollywood right now, brings a surprising lightness as he reveals the inanity of the powers that be in wartime as the woefully insecure and inept Colonel Cathcart. Daniel David Stewart is charming as hell—though never hilarious—as his Milo Minderbinder wheels and deals airplanes, olives, and lamb chops as he founds The Syndicate.
That pared-down humor will prove an understandable deal breaker for some. (That the brilliant Hugh Laurie as the finer things-loving Major de Coverley is practically forgettable is, for me, worse.) But its hard to tell how much of that is a failure of the project versus how much it is a sign of these tiring times. Heller sat at his typewriter in the wake of The Last Romantic War, where the evil opponent was easily identifiable and, eventually, blighted out. But the decades since his novel’s publication have seen the United States exhausted by war and, especially in this century, consumed by terror. Disillusionment with the standing powers is, presumably, at an all-time high.
As the 24-hour news cycle moves from one national emergency to the next while leaders maintain an ideology based on falsehood and fearmongering, we’re all Yossarian, trapped in an endless loop, where the extraordinary has become so expected it is now regarded as normalcy, playing a game of chicken with our own sanity. Maybe it’s okay that it’s not all that funny. Isn’t it fine if we can’t help but sympathize with his screaming?