‘Catch-22’ Evokes the Horror of War With Somber Satire

Hulu’s “Catch-22” sets itself on the challenging mission of adapting one of the great American satires of the 20th century. Joseph Heller’s 1961 novel endures as a recollection of the generation that fought World War II and a general reflection on the horrors of combat. It’s timeless because it refuses to be gung-ho. It’s almost impossible to do a perfect TV version of Heller’s prose, but this six-part miniseries admirably tries, delivering moments both haunting and funny.

Produced by George Clooney, who also directs two episodes, the story is set in the midst of World War II and focuses on a bomber base in Pianosa, Italy. U.S. troops are tasked with carrying out daily bombing raids on enemy positions, but bombardier Captain John Yossarian (Christopher Abbott) isn’t too comfortable with the job. He hates having to get into a B-25, fly over distant territories and drop payloads of death. Sure the war has to be fought, but there’s nothing comforting about killing. It doesn’t help that Colonel Cathcart (Kyle Chandler) keeps increasing the number of bombing missions. Yossarian finds some solace in the arms of Marion (Julie Ann Emery), the wife of the pompous Lt. Scheisskopf (Clooney). But soon the stress gets to him and he tries to find any way to delay or stop the missions, even if it means sabotaging dinner or giving commanders false information about enemy positions being overrun to a clueless Major de Coverley (Hugh Laurie). At the base he’s surrounded by a gallery of fellow soldiers from different backgrounds thrown into this surreal situation, including the profiteer Milo (Daniel David Stewart), pipe-chewing Arfy (Rafi Gavron), the hilariously-named Major Major (Lewis Pullman) and McWatt (Jon Rudnitsky).

In the spirit of the Heller novel “Catch-22” doesn’t pretend to be another nostalgia trip with the Greatest Generation, it isn’t even necessarily a commentary on World War II. It’s mischievously subversive about authority and war in general. When originally published the novel found its biggest fan base with college students and young readers, and served as an ancestor to films like “M*A*S*H.” And yet for this more uncertain age “Catch-22” the miniseries is more somber than viciously satirical. There are almost too many characters to keep track of, but the heart of the narrative is Yossarian’s growing mental instability over the stress of dropping bombs. The true comedy comes from the clownish figures of authority, from Clooney’s neurotic Scheisskopf to Kyle Chandler’s sweaty, shouting Cathcart. The first episode, directed by Clooney, sets the tone by capturing the restlessness in Yossarian and his comrades as they are forced to practice drills and parade formations. He finds it all absurd. However we can’t help but feel bad for Hugh Laurie’s Major de Coverley, who is misled by Yossarian into thinking Bologna has fallen. Enthusiastically he hops into a jeep and walks right into a meeting of Nazi troops. Clooney does a much better job with satire here than in his last film as a director, 2017’s poorly-received “Suburbicon.” He is borrowing from stellar source material after all. Also directing is Grant Heslov, who has co-written films with Clooney like “The Ides of March” and “Good Night, and Good Luck.”

There’s a meandering sense of living within a group in “Catch-22,” with many scenes devoted to just observing these men as they swim, mess around with local Italian prostitutes and try to block out the reality of the war itself. Sometimes the tone feels a bit uneven, as if the series doesn’t know if it wants to be pure satire or a hybrid dramedy. But much of the material is quite strong. A fantastic scene in a brothel features the owner, Marcello (Giancarlo Giannini), giving a brilliant monologue on the fall of empires, and how the U.S. may feel hubris now, but it too will pass into memory. Then sudden violence will intrude into the deceiving serenity. Aarfy commits a terrible act in Rome, Milo is running a vast underground commercial empire, which seems benign at first when he brings fresh vegetables and other goods to the base, but soon begins to look like very shady profiteering. These and other subplots are a commentary on how even though the Allies were in Europe beating back fascism they still brought with them many unsavory habits.

Other moments when “Catch-22” gets dark involve the simple truths of war. Yossarian may be comical to watch as he dreads having to fly, puts laxatives in the soup, and tries to get Major Major (when he’s promoted to an actual major) to study a procedural manual to try and get relieved from bombing raids, but the show also shows us why. During one raid another plane is blown apart and a dying pilot smacks onto Yossarian’s window, a beloved fellow bombardier’s plane disappears during one mission, and there’s always the lingering doubt that it’s not just troops who take the bombs down below. The war affects everyone, and some go truly insane like McWatt, who accidentally kills another soldier, Kid Sampson (Gerran Howell) by obliterating him with his airplane and then proceeds to kill himself. When his superiors as Yossarian if McWatt was insane he replies, “aren’t we all?” The scenes inside the B-25 cockpits have an almost intense claustrophobia, which add to our understanding of why Yossarian feels trapped. The camp doctor explains it well, and it is here where the novel and series’ title comes from, a “catch-22” being that anyone who wants to fly is crazy enough to be grounded, but anyone who declares himself to be crazy is obviously sane enough to fly.

“Catch-22” ends with quite the image of Yossarian, nude, sitting in his dreaded bomber cockpit, a victim of history and fate, watching the clouds and bombs go by. It could be argued that Heller’s novel could have been done with a wilder energy, but this adaptation still does justice to the material in that it understands its heart. War is never fun, and in these days where it seems like rumblings of possible conflicts dominate the headlines daily, that’s not necessarily a bad position to take.

Catch-22” begins streaming May 17 on Hulu.