Catch-22 Mines Madness and Magic From a Classic

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George Clooney and Grant Heslov’s six-part Hulu adaptation of Joseph Heller’s novel is a surprising success.

This feeling of circular logic as a noose tightening around Yossarian’s neck, coupled with the frenetic energy of the first few episodes and the introduction of a fleet of supporting characters, can make it hard to get absorbed in the action early on. Catch-22, for all the time it spends looking at its protagonist, lingering over Abbott’s flaring nostrils and clenched jaw, gives little sense of who Yossarian actually is, or where he comes from, or what he wants, besides his immediate imperative of staying alive. As with the book, all we get of Yossarian is his presence, like he’s Sisyphus trapped in the underworld and bombs are his boulder. Initially, this distance feels alienating, but Abbott’s performance is so magnetic and so multidimensional that it’s hard not to be drawn in. The first time Yossarian registers the death of a fellow pilot, his face twitches almost imperceptibly. The second time, a much bloodier event that follows a jaunty sequence scored to Benny Goodman’s “Goodbye,” he seems to visibly fracture in front of the camera, as if you can watch his spirit degrading.

This constant flux between light and dark, farce and fatalism, is borne out in the miniseries’ stylistic elements. Clooney, Heslov, and Ellen Kuras take turns directing, all finding balance between scenes of striking loveliness and stark horror. The color palette has a kind of yellowing sepia tone, drawing out the dustiness of camp and the heat of explosions, but making the blue of the Mediterranean more cooling by comparison. The nail-biting action of the combat scenes is contrasted with carefree interludes of the pilots horsing around in the sea: swimming, drinking beer, diving, and dunking one another with a joy that’s as radiant as an aftershave commercial, and as short-lived. Even Yossarian, who stores tension inside every atom of his body, seems to relax in the water.

These fleeting moments of calm aren’t in the book, but on-screen they offer some respite from the claustrophobic irrationality of Catch-22’s events. The series’ writers, Luke Davies and David Michôd, excise some of the uglier moments, such as Yossarian groping a nurse whom he later starts a sexual relationship with. But they double down on the absurdity and doublespeak embedded in the story, in which any desired outcome can be logically reasoned and any truth also embodies its opposite. Chandler’s Colonel Cathcart, a sweating, grimacing, stuffed-khaki-shirt of an officer, demonstrates his bravery by sending other men to their death, and “punishes” Yossarian for an infraction by promoting him and giving him a medal. Yo-Yo’s comrades, meanwhile, get riled up by his persistent panic in Pianosa. “You know the difference between me and you?” McWatt (Jon Rudnitsky) tells him in one scene. “Me: happy happy happy. Dead. You: worry worry worry. Dead. Don’t drag me into your shit.”

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