Joseph Heller’s 1961 novel Catch-22 takes place during World War II and was inspired by Heller’s own experiences during the war. But it functioned as an allegory for both McCarthyism and the Vietnam War at the time it was published, and it reflected Vietnam again when it was adapted into a movie by Mike Nichols in 1970. In 2019, Catch-22 remains as sadly relevant as ever, and Hulu’s new six-episode miniseries adaptation of the novel, executive produced by George Clooney and Grant Heslov, easily connects to the modern state of war, capitalism and government bureaucracy.
It’s still a story grounded in World War II, set mostly in Italy where disillusioned Capt. John Yossarian (Christopher Abbott) is stationed as a bombardier in the Army Air Forces. Yossarian wants nothing more than to be discharged from the Army and sent home, and he’s constantly devising plans to get out of the ever-increasing mission quota imposed by the pompous, cruel Col. Cathcart (Kyle Chandler). He’s surrounded by a cast of ridiculous characters, from the greedy black-market magnate Milo Minderbinder (Daniel David Stewart) to the nervous Maj. Major Major Major (Lewis Pullman), who gets promoted based solely on his unlikely name and uses it as an opportunity to spend all his time hidden away in a field office.
Developed by Luke Davies and David Michôd (who wrote all six episodes), this version of Catch-22 abandons the non-linear structure of Heller’s novel in favor of a straightforward narrative, and its prestige visual style makes it look like any number of handsomely mounted premium period dramas. And yet, the writing from Davies and Michôd retains Heller’s caustic wit and righteous anger at the way that nonsensical regulations, enforced by selfish, self-serving men, lead to the very real death and traumatizing of young soldiers.
Yossarian is a cynic who has no time for the blind patriotism that sends so many of his fellow soldiers eagerly to their deaths, and he’s not above employing sabotage or deception to keep himself alive. Some accuse him of cowardice, but as Yossarian sees it, he’s the only sane man on the entire base, the only one actually listening to the human instinct for self-preservation.
His sanity proves a liability, though, as expressed in the famous circular explanation for the novel’s titular regulation, delivered by the base’s physician, Doc Daneeka (Heslov): Any sane person would want to get out of combat missions, and only a crazy person would want to continue flying. A crazy person could be grounded from combat duty just by requesting it, but that request itself is a sign of sanity, and thus of the person’s continued fitness for participating in missions.
Self-justifying policies like that are the norm in Heller’s depiction of the U.S. Army, and one of the most refreshing things about Catch-22 is that it portrays World War II as just as pointless and corrupt as later U.S. military actions. Even nearly 60 years after Heller’s book was published, that’s still a rare perspective in representations of the war; modern films and series like Saving Private Ryan or The Pacific may not shy away from showing the horrors of war, but they still generally accept that the war itself was a noble, worthwhile endeavor. There are no such illusions in Catch-22, which virtually never shows any enemy soldiers onscreen, and finds its antagonists in people like Cathcart and the officious Gen. Scheisskopf (Clooney), who’s more concerned with how his troops look in formation than he is with whether they live or die.
Directors Clooney, Heslov and Ellen Kuras mute some of the satirical impact of the story by giving the show the same epic sweep and gorgeous locations of more traditional World War II period pieces, and the acting is similarly subdued, for the most part (Clooney himself is the only one who really takes advantage of the opportunity to go big with the absurdity of the material). Abbott carries the series as Yossarian, whose single-minded focus on his own survival (in some cases at the potential expense of others) could make him an unpleasant protagonist, but who comes across as rational, human and sympathetic in Abbott’s performance.
Stewart gets a chance to shine as the fast-talking uber-capitalist Minderbinder, but most of the other soldiers fade into the background the majority of the time, just interchangeable fodder for the Army to throw at the enemy. That fits with the theme of the dehumanization of individuals in war, but it makes it a little tougher to invest in the fate of any character aside from Yossarian. The sprawling series is occasionally unwieldy, and while there is plenty of effective dark humor, some of it gets lost in the tangle of military subplots and character introductions.
The tone recalls Michôd’s muddled 2017 Netflix movie War Machine, which attempted to highlight the surreal incompetence of the war in Afghanistan, but never quite hit its target. With Heller’s source material to draw on, Catch-22 succeeds more consistently and has a more powerful message, even if it leaves some of the messiest, most confrontational venom on the page.
Starring Christopher Abbott, Kyle Chandler, Rafi Gavron, Daniel David Stewart, Graham Patrick Martin, Jon Rudnitsky, Jay Paulson, Pico Alexander, Gerran Howell, Austin Stowell, George Clooney and Hugh Laurie, Catch-22 premieres with all six episodes May 17 on Hulu.