It couldn’t be more fitting that the latest adaptation of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 finds its home on Hulu, proud purveyors of dystopia.
The six-episode miniseries has been marketed mostly as a comedy, but as anyone familiar with Heller’s 1961 novel knows, that’s just a way to cheat the system. Make no mistake, friends, this is a war epic, and a searing, caustic commentary from the men inside it.
Catch-22 is the story of John Yossarian (Christopher Abbott), a neurotic World War II bomb plane pilot whose only goal is to survive the war – by getting out of it. Yossarian and his unit have a mandatory flight requirement before they can be discharged, but their nefarious Colonel Cathcart (Kyle Chandler) keeps upping the number. Over the course of the series, we see it rising from 25 to 65, and Yossarian visibly unraveling with each incremental hike.
Thus enters Catch-22, a mind-bending loophole in the show’s military code that states any soldier wishing to be sent home must only ask – but that once he does ask, he’s proven his own sanity and is required to continue serving. Crazy men fly missions and sane men want to go home; crazy men don’t ask to go home and therefore must be made to stay and fly missions.
As Yossarian says, it’s a helluva catch.
For all its humorous packaging and Martin Ruhe’s summer-sun cinematography, Catch-22 looks like a romantic Italian romp, but it is most surely not. Like the characters, you’ll float contentedly through most of an episode – beach trips, war flings, trips to Rome – while actively dreading the imminent flight scene where anyone could die at any moment. More often than not, episodes end in a gory stupor to which one can never quite desensitize.
Even though the entire series is streaming, it is best watched sporadically, with episodes spaced hours or days apart. It takes mere seconds for the show to swerve from tasting tomatoes for the mess hall to blood spattered over Yossarian’s windshield while another friend’s body falls from the sky, and that’s a toll you feel, even as a viewer.
But the humor, when it is there, is remarkable. It’s the only way to balance all that violence, death and burgeoning insanity. Chandler and the sporadically spotted Clooney (who directed two episodes) are absolute pros at this, a proverbial Colonel and General (respectively) among the cast itself.
In that respect, Hulu’s series catches the novel’s spirit in the best way. Catch-22 on the page is extensive and exhaustive, bursting with characters and B-stories that can’t and shouldn’t all make it to the screen. Writers Luke Davies and David Michôd tweak the novel’s chronology and trim scenes and backstories, allowing the characters we do meet to have greater impact whether they’re in one episode or all six. One of the more surprising narrative decisions moves a pivotal character death from early in the novel to the end of the series to pack a heavier punch, but Davies and Michôd choose to escalate Yossarian’s suffering incrementally rather than at random, perhaps for our own sanity as viewers.
With each episode, the war’s cost increases – in lives lost and missions demanded. With each mission, Yossarian loses someone, and his chances of returning to peace and normalcy at war’s end diminish further. Hulu’s cast is significantly younger than that of the 1970 film, which drives the tragedy home even further. In Abbott’s hands, Yossarian is less sardonic than Alan Arkin, arguably sanded down from his tetchy persona in the novel, but easier to empathize with.
Catch-22 doesn’t dump on civilians’ unconditional support and respect of the troops, but it is a peek behind the curtain and encourages interrogating systems of power in which the troops have little to no agency. Of course soldiers aren’t unwaveringly chivalrous all the time; some are noble, some are trapped, and there’s a reason Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is widespread in the military – not only because of the witnessed violence, but because of deeply sown doubt about what happened and why it happened.
Catch-22 is now streaming on Hulu.