Any literary adaptation will necessarily have to make changes to the source material to fit a different medium. A work like Catch-22 requires many changes to get around the novel’s structure and style. It’s acceptable, nay essential, that certain scenes be excised and characters pared down in order for the miniseries to work. With that said, not all creative decisions are created equal. Some work much better than others. Some don’t make a lick of sense at all.
Episode 4, the first of two episodes directed by George Clooney, represents the first of a few major instances where Catch-22 breaks from the novel. Much of the episode follows Yossarian and Orr as they help Milo make deliveries and conduct business around the globe. This provides Clooney with the opportunity to lovingly film the Italian countryside and offers an amusing diversion from the action on base. Yossarian and Orr learn that Milo is treated like royalty in many places around the world because he has brought goods to their land, which inflates their stature in the global marketplace. The people of Palermo have elected Milo the mayor because he brought Scotch to Sicily. It doesn’t matter that the Palermo citizens are too poor to afford Scotch; Milo brings it there anyway to raise the stock price. Now, Sicily is the third-biggest exporter of Scotch.
It’s worth noting that Heller characterizes Milo in the novel as an amoral snake who embodies the most noxious brand of capitalism. In the miniseries, however, Davies and Michôd treat Milo as a purely whimsical character. They characterize his war profiteering as ridiculous and charming without showcasing its nastier edge. Frankly, this isn’t a terrible change considering the medium’s constraints, and it helps that Daniel David Stewart makes his character’s savvy nature feel compelling. There’s a lengthy sequence in Episode 4 where Milo, Yossarian, and Orr travel to the Algerian port city of Oran to convince the Caliph to let them buy the native dates in bulk. Milo wants Yossarian to pose as a wealthy American industrialist to help smooth the deal. He doesn’t tell Yossarian that the Caliph believes he’s Nelson D. Rockefeller.
While Heller details Yossarian and Orr’s trip with Milo in the novel, Davies and Michôd invent the Oran deal for the series. It’s a perfectly fine sequence that tries really hard to be funny and mostly lands at amusing, but it’s an example of a relatively solid addition for the series. Unfortunately, the episode’s other major change exists at the expense of established characterization. In the beginning of Episode 4, Yossarian decides to take a different approach to his dilemma: He will very quickly fly his remaining 11 missions, but will log them all at once instead of individually so Cathcart doesn’t have the chance to raise the mission count in the interim. We’re then treated to a montage of Yossarian flying every mission he can, gladly taking bombardier positions from other able-bodied men, set to Gene Krupa’s “Massachusetts.” When he finally finishes his “last” mission, he giddily dances in the plane while Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood” plays over the scene. He can’t wait to show his paperwork to Colonel Korn so that he can finally be discharged to go home.
Even accepting for certain modifications in character and personality, it’s downright ridiculous and insulting to invent a situation in which Yossarian eagerly wants to fly combat missions. Are we supposed to believe the sight of McWatt and Kid Sampson’s burned remnants would inspire Yossarian to jump right back into a plane, even if it’s for a scheme? Worse, there’s not even a hint of dramatic tension because Davies and Michôd have to concoct a reason for Yossarian’s efforts to fail. (The paperwork took too long to process, i.e., Korn didn’t bother filing it, and in the meantime Cathcart raised the mission count.) I neither want nor expect complete fidelity to Heller’s novel, but for Yossarian to ever fly willingly feels like a character betrayal. His goal is to stay alive. Purposefully risking his life to do that makes no sense.
At least Episode 4 features the series’ first thrilling aerial sequence. Most of the plane scenes have so far been functional, humdrum, or labored. In the closing scene, however, Clooney places the audience right in the cockpit just as things start to go wrong. As they’re taking heavy fire, Yossarian has trouble locating his target because of miscommunication between him and his navigator. Confusion infiltrates every moment: Multiple misunderstandings and misreadings amid heavy artillery fire make for a tense scene. Davies and Michôd put a sick spin on the dialogue’s screwball rhythms — “So is that the bridge?” “No, different bridge.” “Well, how do you we’re talking about the same bridge. I’m talking about that bridge.” “I dunno what bridge you’re talking about, but it’s not the bridge I mean.” — and it eventually culminates in Yossarian dropping the payload too late. Yossarian forces the pilot to turn around so they can hit the target because he’s damned sure not going back up again tomorrow for the same mission. They’re successful, but they take flak, and the tail gunner Nately ends up dead.
Similar to what they did with McWatt, Davies and Michôd try to quickly give Nately some more screen time so his death has meaning. At this point, it’s pretty transparent that the scene on the tarmac where Nately tells Yossarian about his intentions to marry Clara, his favorite prostitute, foreshadows his doom. Davies and Michôd have previously given Nately some space in the series to wax romantic, so the final shot of him hurtling to the ground as he peacefully remembers a pleasant scene in the brothel does actually have weight. But it’s still another frustratingly conventional attempt to give life to these characters. Ideally, they should mean something when they’re alive so that their death scenes don’t have to pull so much weight.
• The episode peaks with the fantastic scene where the brass interviews Yossarian about the McWatt-Sampson incident. Yossarian follows along with the leading questions that attempt to defer the military’s responsibility until the very end when he says, in the most vacantly smug tone, “I would say the United States military is entirely responsible for McWatt’s insanity that led to the death of Kid Sampson.”
• As much as the tarmac scene feels phony, I did laugh at Yossarian’s cruel rebuke to Nately (“You know how this works, don’t you? You pay her money and she doesn’t love you.”) and was oddly moved when he accepted the position of best man anyway.
• Apart from the music selections highlighted above, the episode opens with the Mills Brothers’ “Paper Doll,” features Renato Carosone’s “Tu Vuò Fà l’Americano” in the Milo section, and closes with one of the prostitutes singing “Torna a Surriento,” composed by Ernesto De Curtis.