‘Catch 22’ Plays War for Laughs
George Clooney adapts the classic anti-war novel
by MATTHEW GAULT
The first thing you might notice about Catch-22 is how clean everything is. The uniforms are pressed and tidy. Every military structure looks beautiful and new.
Rows of B-25 bombers glitter in the golden Italian sun, fresh paint glistening against wide-open blue skies. The boys of the 256th Bomber Squadron look like a fighting force as painted by Norman Rockwell.
It’s a weird choice for a T.V. adaptation of Joseph Heller’s classic novel about bureaucracy and the horrors of war.
Catch-22, a new six-part miniseries on Hulu, is a labor of love by George Clooney. He produced it, directed two episodes and portrays order-obsessed Lieutenant Scheisskopf.
The story follows Joseph Yossarian, a bombardier for the U.S. Army Air Force in the Italian theater of World War II. Yossarian really, really doesn’t want to be there. He’s a coward, but an honest one.
To go home, Yossarian needs to fly a certain number of missions. The problem is that the glory-hungry Colonel Cathcart keeps raising the number of missions a crew must fly before it can go home.
Every time Yossarian and his peers get close to their ticket back to the States, that number goes up. Early on, Yossarian appeals to Doctor Daneeka, the squadron’s medical officer. He wants Daneeka to ground him for reasons of insanity.
But Daneeka won’t do it. Anyone who would fly a near-suicidal combat mission obviously is insane, Daneeka explains. But for Daneeka to send an airman home, the airman first needs to ask.
If he asks, however, he’s demonstrating rational concern for his safety … and thus isn’t crazy. He’s fit to fly. It’s a statute the doctor calls “Catch-22.”
“That’s a Hell of a catch, that Catch-22,” Yossarian says.
“It’s the best there is,” Daneeka replies.
Heller’s novel is an hilarious and horrifying anti-ward screed. The mini-series, by comparison, is too clean.
Hulu’s Catch-22 does have horrific moments, but you can see them coming a mile away as the swelling orchestral score practically announces them. The rest of the time, Catch-22 plays Yossarian’s antics for laughs. World War II by way of The Office.
Yossarian and the other airmen come across as heroes. The boys wrestle in slow motion while big-band standards croon in the background. Part of the problem is the bias of the medium. The camera tends to elevate whoever it’s looking at.
One way to overcome that bias is to batter the audience with horror. Elem Klimov achieved this with Come and See. Stanley Kubrick did it with Paths to Glory but couldn’t quite repeat the trick in Full Metal Jacket.
Heller’s novel includes all the horror Clooney needed to make his adaptation an effective satire. But Clooney blinked, and his show suffers for it.
Take Doc Daneeka. In the book, he doesn’t want to fly but does want to get paid for the flight hours, so he convinces a pilot to add him to the flight logs so that, on paper, he’s in the air.
When that pilot commits suicide by flying his plane into a mountain, the flight log claims Daneeka is aboard.
Legally, Daneeka is dead. Once the colonel files the paperwork, it’s impossible for the doctor to convince anyone he’s really alive. To conform with what the bureaucracy says is true, everyone on base simply ignores Daneeka.
Even Daneeka’s wife plays along, cashing the pension and insurance checks Daneeka took out against his life. As the world continues to ignore Daneeka, he shrivels in appearance, wandering the edges of the base and stealing food where he can.
In the end, even he accepts that he’s dead and scuttles off, never to be seen again. That subplot is absent in Hulu’s much gentler, goofier adaptation.
In the series, an airplane propeller obliterates a character. Another burns up in a plane crash. Others simply disappear. Yossarian has to identify his friend’s bodies, but two hours later Scheisskopf is literally playing with his balls.
This is a feature of Angry Planet, a new collective of journalists writing about war, history, technology and culture. Join Angry Planet.