“The problem lies in the relationship between the synchronization of the whole unit and the synchronization of the individual line,” Clevinger (Pico Alexander) informs Lieutenant Scheisskopf (George Clooney) in an early scene from the first episode of Catch-22. Scheisskopf has been berating his squadron for not adhering to parade formation and rhetorically asks the men what he’s doing wrong. Clevinger, much to the chagrin of his peers, especially the pragmatically fatalist Yossarian (Christopher Abbott), answers Scheisskopf sincerely. Soon, Clevinger and Yossarian are assigned to walk around in a circle carrying heavy buckets as punishment for insubordination.
Clevinger’s mistake was to employ logic in an illogical institution, one whose bureaucracy views human life as expendable and/or meaningless, whose vainglorious authorities privilege their career interests over all else, whose raisons d’être are violence and death in service of abstract ideals. “War is hell” might be a well-worn cliché, but author Joseph Heller fully unpacked that aphorism in his 1961 debut novel by illustrating the mundane machinations of hell. If war is hell, then hell is a dense thicket of ironies and contradictions that ensnares unsuspecting men like flies in a glue trap. There’s no better encapsulating image in this episode than the overhead shot of Yossarian and Clevinger pointlessly walking around in a circle to flatter the ego of a sadistic superior because Clevinger wanted to improve and assist in the pointless activity of parade formation so as to flatter the ego of a sadistic supervisor. It’s not accidental that their movements mirror the circular trajectory of their bomber planes.
The problem with adapting Catch-22 is that its satirical power lies almost entirely in its literary characteristics. The novel’s circular, paradoxical style reflects the irrational foundation of military bureaucracy. Its non-linear chronology amplifies the casual tragedy of war by peppering in major events out of sequence only for them to be contextualized later, effectively collapsing trauma into the evergreen present. Heller structures Catch-22 by free association, with various digressions and ideas pinging off one another until an entire ecosystem of shared anxieties and contradictions becomes apparent. Any big or small screen adaptation necessitates certain compromises that will inevitably soften any satire evoked through the experience of reading Heller’s prose.
Luke Davies and David Michôd’s miniseries version of Catch-22 for Hulu weathers most of those issues in obvious ways, mainly by channeling the satire through dialogue or easy visual cues. They embrace the book’s rapid screwball energy in certain scenes, like when Scheisskopf brings Clevinger and Yossarian up in front of the Action Board (“No, sir.” “No, sir? You’re callin’ me a liar now?” “No, sir.” “No what, sir?” “No… what, sir?”), and other scenes are more or less paraphrased directly from Heller, like Yossarian’s rant about the staggering incompetence of God. Other times, the series reflects a handsomely staged Prestige TV version of Heller’s comic masterpiece, complete with attractive actors, gorgeous locations, and overwrought music cues to signal how we should read tragic events (a shame considering the line between comedy and tragedy in the novel was fluid to the point of non-existent). While the series isn’t unengaging, it nevertheless feels too fastidious for such inherently messy source material.
The first episode follows Yossarian and the 256th squadron from the last days of basic training through the first few months of service. Davies and Michôd introduce most of the squadron—Clevinger, Dunbar, Kid Sampson, McWatt, Nately, Major Major, Aarfy, Orr—with on-screen text, trusting the audience to keep up. They introduce other essential characters throughout the episode, like the cheerily unhelpful Doc Daneeka (Grant Heslov, also the episode’s director) whom Yossarian petitions for permanent grounding on the basis of insanity; Milo Minderbinder (Daniel David Stewart), an enterprising capitalist who persuades Major de Coverley (Hugh Laurie) to promote him to mess officer so that he can profit off of food imports; and, eventually, the sadistic Colonel Cathcart (Kyle Chandler), who wants nothing more than to keep raising the required number of missions for the men to complete their service. It’s a lot of names ascribed to a lot of similar faces, but Davies and Michôd do a halfway decent job of juggling the ensemble so that each individual has enough personality to be distinctive.
Davies and Michôd spend much of the series’ first episode establishing mood—the harrowing flight missions vs. the bureaucratic frustrations on the ground—but the crux involves Yossarian’s rapid disillusionment with military service, and he’s beginning from a place of skepticism. He only signed up for the Air Force because a) he knew he was going to be drafted eventually and b) they require the longest basic training, so the war might be over by the time he was finished. Even before he goes up in the air, he tries to evade parade duty by faking illnesses involving his stomach; later, Doc tells him to invoke liver pain in order to get out of duty. But two events solidify his position to avoid fly missions entirely: First, he accidentally points new recruit/bunkmate Henry Mudd towards the wrong tent for administrative check-in, which would be a minor error in any other context, but in this case leads to his death after he’s mistaken for a tail gunner by a careless superior officer and his plane goes down. (“He didn’t even unpack his kit,” Orr notes at the mess hall without looking up from his food.) Then, on a routine fly mission, he watches a fellow captain get blown out of his plane only for his bloodied body to be splattered across the nose of his plane. “I don’t want to be the one who dies showing [the Germans] the door,” he sneers to his uncomfortable peers.
Yossarian is one of the most enduring, beloved characters in 20th century American literature precisely because Heller reframes his cowardice as bravery, his selfishness as admirable self-preservation. “The enemy is anybody who’s going to get you killed, no matter which side he’s on,” he famously says in the novel, and the motivation to stay alive in an environment that all but demands his demise becomes our primary avenue of empathy. Christopher Abbott deserves quite a bit of credit for imbuing his character with a low-boil frustration mixed with genuine despair and contemptuous disdain. He knows the whole system is a sham and wants nothing to do with it. The Air Force’s mission might be to win the war. His mission is to stay alive and get out of dodge.
That’s why he tries to appeal to Doc’s rationality after Cathcart raises the required mission count to 30. He wants Doc to ground him because he’s “crazy,” but Doc can’t ground him because of Catch-22. Davies and Michôd essentially lift Heller’s renowned exchange between Yossarian and Doc about the eponymous concept directly from the novel. Doc’s relevant explanation goes thusly:
“Anybody who wants to get out of combat duty isn’t really crazy. Catch-22 specifies that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of danger, real and immediate, is the process of a rational mind. Orr is crazy and therefore he can get out of flying combat missions. All he has to do is ask. But as soon as he asks, he’s no longer crazy, so he has to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to want to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he’s sane, then he has to fly them. If he flies them, then he’s crazy, and so he doesn’t have to, but if he doesn’t want to, then he’s sane, and so he has to.”
To fly more combat missions is crazy, but to ask to opt out of them proves one’s sanity. This paradoxical rule keeps rational men like Yossarian in combat and obscures irrational abuses of power. It’s how bureaucracies operate and hierarchies are maintained. All the while men die senseless deaths because a certain Colonel keeps raising the mission count. Clevinger might be talking about parade formations when he describes the synchronization gap between the unit and the individual line, but that tension extends through every facet of service. If Yossarian is required to die for the good of the group, how noble are the goals of the group in the first place? The war might be just, but what good are the justifications if Yossarian dies before seeing its end?
That’s some catch, that Catch-22. It’s the best there is.
• Clooney mostly does his standard blusteringly goofy Coen Brothers routine as Lieutenant Scheisskopf, but it works fairly well. His best moment is when he calls Clevinger a “windy son of a bitch,” like he’s directly channeling Ulysses Everett McGill from O Brother, Where Art Thou?
• Catch-22 is a fairly masculine book by design; most of the women in the novel are two-dimensional symbols in secondary roles, necessarily defined by their relationship to the men at the book’s center. Here we see Scheisskopf’s wife (Julie Ann Emery) having a torrid affair with Yossarian, partially because they both hate Scheisskopf, and Nurse Duckett (Tessa Ferrer) rolling her eyes at Yossarian’s fake stomach problem.
• The series’ music mostly features early jazz and big band. This episode features a montage set to Nat King Cole’s “Straighten Up and Fly Right,” and closes with Nat Gonella’s “It’s a Pair of Wings For Me.”
• Those who’ve read the novel know the context of the pre-credits scene featuring a naked, bloodied Yossarian walking along the base. How long will it be before we see that awful moment?