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The Caustic War Satire Catch 22 Gets a Dour Hulu Series

The miniseries adaptation of Joseph Heller’s 1961 novel fails to capture the novel’s wit while thriving in its darkest moments.

Troubled World War II bombardier Captain John “YoYo” Yossarian (Christopher Abbott) prepares for another air mission in Hulu’s Catch-22 (image courtesy of Philippe Antonello, Hulu)

What is most notable about Hulu’s TV miniseries adaptation of Joseph Heller’s novel Catch-22 (published 1961) is how the show wastes no moment in directing the audience to take notice of what they are hearing. Even moments of silence are careful, deliberate sound manipulations; at other moments, we hear World War II-era music, such as Glenn Miller’s ubiquitous jazz standard “In The Mood” (1939). The fifth episode of the miniseries closes with another standard, Vera Lynn’s wistful “We’ll Meet Again” (1939), which accompanies the image of Captain John “YoYo” Yossarian (Christopher Abbott) parachuting in the sky from a plane after getting shot. This needle drop also conjures the atomic bomb montage that closes Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 Cold War satire Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, a superior work and one that has what this Catch-22 adaptation is missing: comedy. 

The effort, by writer-director David Michod and screenwriter Luke Davies, to translate Heller’s absurdist comedy about war and military bureaucracy from the page to the small screen is clear, but it comes across as competent at best. At its worst, it feels strained; this is most evident in the direction and performances. George Clooney (executive producer and director of two of the six episodes) mugs as the mustachioed Lt. Scheisskopf. With the broadest of strokes, Clooney plays against type as the antagonistic authority figure. From the start, he is vindictive, cursing the men participating in Mediterranean Theatre for the 256th Squadron of the US Army Air Force as he makes his stops in the fictional Italian island of Pianosa. Kyle Chandler, as Colonel Cathcart, tries, but he is completely miscast for the part. Chandler is best as the paternal figure in dramas (most notably, Coach Eric Taylor in the TV series Friday Night Lights) rather than as a bumbling officer who seems to be constantly perspiring and is ineffectual in his comedic riffs on being a failed leader of men. Hugh Laurie as Major de Coverley is solid but his character is not long for this world. Among the major characters, Christopher Abbott is a strong Yossarian in the more dramatic moments, but his comedic sensibilities clash with his straight-man register. With the exception of the shady, resourceful black market capitalist Milo (Daniel David Stewart), the rest of the cast is mostly unremarkable. We see a lot of pale white skin and period-specific side-parted hairdos, but few of the actors stand out and most of them miss the mark when scenes call for comedy.

George Clooney as Lt. Scheisskopf in Hulu’s Catch-22 (image courtesy of Philippe Antonello, Hulu)

This is the second filmed adaptation of Catch-22; the first is the 1970 film directed by Mike Nichols. Nichols, along with Buck Henry (who had a supporting part in the film as Lt. Col. Korn), adapted the novel into a two-hour film, cutting out subplots and characters and, in some cases, combining multiple characters into one. According to Nichols, Heller was comfortable with their choices and liked the film, but it was overshadowed by another anti-authority war film of that year, Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H. However, Nichols and Henry nail the text’s comedic aspects — not just because the two men were seasoned comedians, but because their playful sight gags, which rested on skillful editing and direction, are no small feat (some involved crashing aircrafts). Nichols also moved powerfully beyond comedy: there are many shots of solitary broken men in empty rooms, and it is difficult not to be moved by Jack Gilford’s performance as Doc Daneeka or disturbed by Charles Grodin’s rapist officer Aarfy. Even when given more expansive scripts or emotionally charged orchestral scores, the miniseries cast doesn’t measure up. Only Abbott’s Yossarian elicited any feeling from me. This is not just because the film featured an ensemble including Orson Welles, Bob Newhart, Anthony Perkins, Jon Voight, and Alan Arkin (as Yossarian), but because the film’s actors were simply more effective in their roles. 

Christopher Abbott as Captain John “YoYo” Yossarian in Hulu’s Catch-22 (image courtesy of Philippe Antonello, Hulu)

The miniseries often lifts directly from Heller’s text, as did Henry and Nichols, and yet in conveying Heller’s language, it feels bogged down by the density of the prose and the translation of satire from page to screen. The direction of the series is split between Clooney, Grant Heslov (Clooney’s longtime collaborator in producing and writing, who also portrays Doc Daneeka in this version), and cinematographer-director Ellen Kuras. Though ably done, there is nothing visually remarkable about their direction. Nothing brings Heller’s book to life.

Often the directors use the oppressive score, by Rupert and Harry Gregson-Williams, as a crutch. When Kid Sampson (Jackson Bews) is sliced in half by an airplane, the orchestration becomes mawkish, layered with the shock of scene’s the gory visuals. Visually, the miniseries remains mostly in a dull, uniform register, which is ironic given the text’s unpredictable chaos. One hallmark shot in the series is the fluid, verité camera movement following a series of static shots of any given interior or exterior. Suddenly, the camera spots somebody or something important, and does a quick zoom-in on its subject. Once you see one of these shots, the succeeding versions grow redundant fast.

Alan Arkin as Yossarian in the film Catch-22 (1970) directed by Mike Nichols (image courtesy of Robert Willoughby, Paramount Pictures, Filmways Productions)

What made Catch-22 slowly become a cultural phenomenon following its 1961 release was that Heller’s text felt prophetic, as the US entered into the Cold War and the war in Vietnam. The book’s anti-authority worldview was palpable in the film; Nichols very deliberately made a war film in which the commentary is about the war the absurdity and bureaucracy of war itself. The 2019 version contains its own revisions of the text, some of which seem completely superfluous, such as a brief excursion into an Italian villa, and it ends on a defeatist note, as opposed to the hopeful ending of the novel and the film. This change strikes me as that of a creative team reaching to offer a modern twist that reflects today’s nightmarish reality of endless foreign wars and a disillusioned resignation to the world’s insurmountable darkness. While this approach accepts Heller’s indictment of the institutions, it rejects the author’s emancipation of the lead character, instead sending YoYo on the Kafka-esque track of neverending air missions. The ending of the miniseries feels egregious and limp.

Heller’s blistering satire on a war that supposedly saw America at its finest hour was considered incendiary to some and gutsy to others in the literary establishment. Heller used his military service and wartime experience as a meditation and a warning, and yet his prose had its own caustic wit. The Hulu adaptation fails to capture this wit while thriving in the novel’s darkest moments, such as the death of the doomed gunner Snowden (Harrison Osterfield). But the inability to reconcile the humor with the darkness results in a dour miniseries, and one that misses what made Heller’s Catch-22 such an enjoyable, relatable, transcendent paradox.

Catch-22 is available to watch on Hulu.

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