George Clooney directs and stars in Hulu’s satisfying adaptation of Joseph Heller’s novel.
This is a (mostly) spoiler-free review of Hulu’s Catch-22 miniseries. The series premieres on Friday, May 17, 2019.
George Clooney makes a successful return to television with Hulu’s satisfying 6-episode adaptation of Joseph Heller’s seminal novel, Catch-22. The former ER leading man directs two out of six episodes, effectively capturing Heller’s satirical tale about a group of B-25 Bombardiers who fly dozens of missions over Nazi-controlled Italy during World War II. Clooney also does some fine on-screen work as a hot-headed general named Scheisskopf, but it’s Christopher Abbott’s (It Comes at Night) Captain Yossarian who steals the show.
Catch-22 opens with Yossarian walking naked through a smokey field with a haunted expression on his face. The weary soldier suddenly lets out a harrowing scream as if to say… “Enough!” And that’s where our story begins. The series is a thought-provoking examination of war, bureaucratic stupidity, love, camaraderie, and death. Yossarian acts as the audience’s eyes and ears into a maddening world that feels both fantastical and authentic.
In the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a Catch-22 is defined as “a problematic situation for which the only solution is denied by a circumstance inherent in the problem or by a rule,” or, “a situation presenting two equally undesirable alternatives.” In Heller’s novel (and Hulu’s adaptation), Catch-22 is a military rule that won’t allow Yossarian to return home because he has a rational mind. Asking to go home due to a fear of death makes you rational, therefore, you cannot be deemed insane. However, if you keep flying missions and don’t ask to go home, then you do not have a sane mind, but once you ask to go home, you’re rational once again. Basically, you can never go home (unless seriously injured).
Catch-22 is another way to highlight more of the absurdities of war, which Yossarian grows in frustration over. Abbott skillfully portrays Yossarian like a ticking time bomb, with each new tragedy and idiotic order he endures making him more explosive. It’s a slow descent into madness that the young actor pulls off well. Sure, Clooney is the big name here, but Catch-22 might be Abbott’s “star-making” moment. By the end of the miniseries, Yossarian is one of the most fully-realized characters in recent memory. And even though six episodes is sufficient to tell Heller’s story, a few more hours with Yossarian and his comrades wouldn’t have hurt the show’s pacing.
After Yossarian’s “scream heard around the world,” Catch-22 goes back to the beginning, where the bombardiers are still in basic training. This is when we get our first look at the questionable men chosen to lead these young airmen into battle. Clooney’s Scheisskopf is obsessed with how good his boys look marching, instead of how combat-ready they are. Clooney seems to be having fun as the boisterous drill sergeant-type.
Once we get to Europe, authoritative stupidity continues with Kyle Chandler’s (Friday Night Lights) Colonel Cathcart and Hugh Laurie’s (House MD) Major de Coverley. In one hilarious scene, Cathcart mistakes a private named Major Major Major (Lewis Pullman) for a genuine officer, simply due to the fact that his name is Major. (“Major” is an amusing Gomer Pyle-type, who should definitely not be leading anyone.) There are other memorable comedic moments involving the military higher-ups sprinkled throughout that help bring levity to balance this war story’s more harrowing moments.
This section of the story showcases the absurdity of command and those who have to obey their orders. Even Scheisskopf cowers and bumbles before his boss. All of the officers are solely concerned with saving face, and if necessary, placing the blame on others to protect their own reputation. There’s a tragicomic sensibility to the series, since those scenes may be amusing on their face, but many of the mistakes made by the officers in charge lead to countless deaths. Thankfully, Catch-22 doesn’t try to romanticize war, even in its funnier moments.
No matter how much screen time each character has, showrunners Luke Davies and David Michôd give everyone their moment to shine. Even though the series only covers a small slice of the global conflict, the cultural zeitgeist of that time appears to be evenly spread throughout the ensemble. From McWatt’s (Jon Rudnitsky) “smile until you die” disposition to Yossarian’s more nihilistic point of view, it’s easy to identify with everyone’s perspective… Like, “hey, I would probably have all of those emotions if I was in the middle of a war.”
Catch-22 doesn’t shy away from the horrors of war, and every time Yossarian meets an eager new recruit, it’s difficult to not get the feeling like you’re never going to see them again. With the airmen being confined to their planes for most of the battles, all of the deaths feel very intimate and personal. There are no large battlefields with thousands of soldiers being mowed down by ammunition… Just a couple of guys in a plane trying to hit a target from hundreds of feet in the air. The scenes inside the planes are very claustrophobic, which adds a nice bit of suspense and tension as the cacophony of anti-aircraft rounds explode around them. Like Yossarian, you want the chaotic missions to end as quickly as possible.