The cultural debt owed to Joseph Heller’s antiwar satire, Catch-22, becomes clearer when you watch Hulu’s handsomely produced miniseries. It feels familiar, even old hat, because so many subsequent works have borrowed from it. The alphabet-soup acronyms and Marx Brothers malaprops; the “Who’s on first?”–style nonsense conversations; the frat-house slapstick alternating with homosocial tenderness and fathomless horror; the baseline cynicism about whether any war, no matter how nobly justified, can ever be classified as “good.” These and other elements were integral to M*A*S*H, Apocalypse Now, and Full Metal Jacket, and they resonate in recent works like Sorry to Bother You, Atlanta, Archer, Patriot, and the recent HBO miniseries Chernobyl, which showed how the human tendencies toward tribalism, greed, and ass-covering can make anything worse, even a nuclear accident. So in that sense, there’s nothing new to see here.
But in another sense there is. Where Mike Nichols’s 1970 big-screen version of Catch-22 compressed the story and went for a sketch-comedy approach — in the vein of Dr. Strangelove or Orson Welles’s version of The Trial — this one is more leisurely and episodic, and its people are more recognizably people, even when they’re fools or ogres. This version conveys the humanity under the veneer of savage absurdity and gives each episode a distinct shape. It works better as a TV show than you might think, though not well enough to quell the feeling that we have yet to see an adaptation as scathing as the source material. It’s at its best in lyrical moments, showing, say, a group of handsome young men haloed in golden light as they goof around on a Mediterranean shore, or a spray of blood spattering a bomber’s cockpit, or a tight close-up of a man’s eyes as sanity deserts him.
Written by Luke Davies and David Michôd and directed by Grant Heslov, Ellen Kuras, and George Clooney, the miniseries charts the gradual psychological disintegration of Airman John “YoYo” Yossarian (Christopher Abbott), who’s convinced that he’s going to die in the war because his petty and vindictive commanding officer, Colonel Cathcart (Kyle Chandler), keeps increasing the number of missions he’s required to finish before mustering out. That the number rises partly because of Yossarian’s efforts to avoid or sabotage missions is but one of the tale’s many examples of characters’ inadvertently making an unfair system worse by fighting it. The title, of course, is a reference to the novel’s signature paradox: It’s impossible to be exempted from bombing missions on grounds of insanity because anyone who would apply for an exemption must, by definition, be sane.
Is Yossarian a man of conscience or just trying to save his own skin? The writing here makes it seem more like the latter. His bursts of self-righteousness are confined to late in the story (culminating in a horrifying act of violence by a fellow soldier that Yossarian is powerless to avenge). And the writing largely avoids superimposing retroactive knowledge of both the good that World War II did (destroying the Axis powers, ending the Holocaust, liberating the concentration camps) and the evil (the atomic bombs, the wholesale destruction of civilian populations), instead presenting Yossarian’s experiences as occurring in a shrapnel-torn Twilight Zone: less a specific war than War with a capital W. To appreciate it, you have to get past the expectation that it’s going to knock you out with harsh truths, as these ideas haven’t been shocking since the early ’60s (if they even were then; Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead came out in 1948, and one of the best jokes in Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny, originally published in 1951, was that every soldier or sailor who could string a sentence together daydreamed about writing an important novel about the insanity of war). A big part of the power of Heller’s book lay in its timing. It came out at the tail end of the McCarthy era, a full 16 years after the end of a war that certified the United States as one of the saviors of civilization, at least in its own collective consciousness. That the hero of a novel released by a mainstream publishing house could nevertheless find the entire exercise stupid and pointless, and declare the entire military apparatus to be mostly incompetent and corrupt, was audacious. Most post-Vietnam war stories are implicitly antiwar, or at least skeptical of the idea that war makes men out of boys and teaches (rather than merely tests) character.
A core of decency peeks through Yossarian’s carapace of cynicism, thanks to a superlative lead performance by Abbott, a young stage and screen actor who’s proved his versatility in projects as diverse as Girls, James White, and The Sinner. He’s the rare actor who is content to give audiences a brief glimpse of a character’s emotional interior, just enough to allow for projection. When Yossarian isn’t raising hell or marinating in his own anger and self-pity, the directors (Kuras especially) treat him as a sculptural object, framing and lighting him the way filmmakers used to light saintly wiseass hunks like Paul Newman back in the day. The supporting players are allowed to brush up against caricature, winningly so. Clooney and Hugh Laurie practically chew through furniture playing the kind of conceited, scatterbrained, power-corrupted authority figures who invariably seem to be rewarded with CEO jobs and presidential appointments in peacetime. Chandler, the handsomest character actor to come along since Jeff Bridges, is devastatingly funny as Cathcart. But the biggest surprises here are Tessa Ferrer (Grey’s Anatomy) as Nurse Duckett, who is as aware of the hypocrisy and injustice of military life as Yossarian but is much more philosophical about it, and Daniel David Stewart (Spring Awakening) as Milo Minderbinder, a onetime cook turned war profiteer and eventual founder of the Syndicate, an intricate global network of parasitic capitalists. Without putting too fine a point on it, both the series and Stewart’s performance seem to understand that it’s Minderbinder, not Yossarian or even Cathcart, to whom the future belongs.
*This article appears in the May 13, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!