Give the new six-episode Hulu miniseries version of "Catch-22" two episodes of your time, and then make your call. It took me two to get on board with it, after some initial skepticism about the tone and the overall plan of attack.
It pays off. The miniseries adaptation was overseen and directed, two episodes apiece, by ensemble cast members Grant Heslov and a fellow named George Clooney; producer Ellen Kuras handled the other two segments.
Any screen version of Joseph Heller's 1961 novel has a lot working against it. It's an extraordinarily popular but problematic and adaptation-averse novel, with no interest in conventional forward momentum. Heller himself said it, to a Rolling Stone interviewer: "Put the events in chronological order, and you'll find an uneventful story about a bombardier and a colonel who wants his men to fly more missions than anyone else."
The new version of this World War II death cackle succeeds to roughly the same degree as Mike Nichols' big-screen, bigger-everything adaptation did _ but in completely different ways.
Released in the summer of 1970, Nichols' "Catch-22" played like a series of Second City sketches on the subject of institutional gobblygook. A lot of the scenes worked. A lot didn't, and the movie strains to amuse, and to find the right collusion of verbal gamesmanship and sobering violence. Anyway, "M(ASTERISK)A(ASTERISK)S(ASTERISK)H" got there first. Released in the spring that year, Robert Altman's comedy caught the country unawares and, in its own improvisational boys-club brilliance, it killed. Even Nichols admitted it was better.
Compared to the Heller novel and the 1970 movie, Hulu's "Catch-22" is smoother, more linear, more openly sensitive and humane in its depiction of fighting men caught in the pitiless gears of military bureaucracy and double talk.
The new Yossarian, played by subtly and well by Christopher Abbott, is a leading man-type, less flagrantly at odds or desperately panic-driven, not to mention desperately horny, than the one Heller created. This Yossarian's more of a joiner, less of an eccentric, single-minded outsider, though Abbott goes for real anguish and terror — rightly so — in the scenes set in his B-25 over Nazi-occupied Italy.
Among other changes, the new "Catch-22" straightens out the non-linear two-year story chronology. We meet Yossarian stateside, during basic training under the parade-loving command of Lt. Scheisskopf (Clooney, mugging a lot). Also known as YoYo, the bombardier suffers from plainly justifiable paranoia: He thinks everybody's out to kill him, which is how things go in wartime. As his mission count nears its limit, Yossarian can practically taste his freedom, and the homefront, though his afternoons spent with Scheisskopf's wife (Julie Ann Emery) provide a diversion.
Enter Col. Cathcart, played by an inspired Kyle Chandler, dancing brilliantly on the fault line between inspiring tough guy and pluperfect idiot. On the Italian island of Pianosa, Cathcart keeps raising the mission count, bucking for a promotion. Maybe Yossarian can get out of it by pleading insanity. No soap, says the sympathetic base doctor Daneeka (Heslov, a supporting cast highlight). There's this rule called Catch-22, stating that a fighting man can be ruled insane and therefore unfit, but if requests to be removed from duty, that means he's sane and therefore fit for combat.
"That's some catch, that Catch-22," Abbott's Yossarian deadpans, half in admiration. He spends most of the series' four-and-a-half-hour running time trying to find the loophole.
The production filmed mostly in Italy and on Sardinia, and it's a handsome-looking thing. Producer Kuras directs the second and third episodes, and while all three were on set throughout (filming was done the usual, out-of-order way), Kuras' cinematographer credits ("Eternal Sunshine of the Spotlight Mind") may have given her the edge. The screenplay makes significant amends for how shabbily Heller treats the women, prostitutes and nurses, mostly, in the novel. Without going entirely gooey, the scenes between Abbott's Yossarian and Tessa Ferrer's wry, beautifully contained Nurse Duckett bring out a different side of a protagonist who's more of a conduit, a prism through which we see everyday madness.
There are many sharp supporting performers, among them Hugh Laurie (as Major de Coverley, cynical beyond imagining), Daniel David Stewart (as Milo Minderbinder, genial war profiteer and international black-market trade expert) and Kevin J. O'Connor (as Col. Corn, one of Heller's greatest character names, and one of Yossarian's prime enemies). Viewers casually dropping into "Catch-22" expecting a wisecracking variation on "Band of Brothers" will not get what they expect. This is "No Exit," service comedy division. The verbal exchanges, full of torturous logic and cruel paradoxes designed to crush fighting men into dust even before they're in harm's way, dominate the script.
"War is not about profits," Cathcart says at one poinit to Minderbender.
"Absolutely, sir," he replies. "Not only."
"War is about the just defeating the unjust."
Pause. Then: "It is absolutely that too, sir."
Exchanges like that come more or less straight out of Heller. The novel's most incisive passages, such as the old Italian pimp's disquisition on Italy's glorious losing streak holding the key to its longevity, remain fresh and arresting. (Giancarlo Giannini is perfectly cast here.) Not all of "Catch-22" has aged as well. If there's a significant downside to this miniseries adaptation, it's the way some of the montages and golden-memory sequences — Yossarian and the boys swimming, laughing — feel designed for the wrong sort of nostalgia, and another kind of war story entirely. The revised ending doesn't quite land, either, though Heller's own antic finish wouldn't work here, or now, just as the 1970 film's capper felt slapdash and a little off.
I mean, everything in "Catch-22" is meant to feel a little off. Yossarian is in a foot-race with his own sanity. Clooney, Heslov and company realize there's no minimizing the psychic damage being done to Yossarian, as he sees one cohort after another expire while he enjoys extraordinary luck. As someone who only read Heller's novel last week, as opposed to growing up with it, I like what they've done with it here overall. It may not be crammed full to bursting with amazing comic actors, the way Nichols' half-right movie was. It's softer, I guess. But it's not soft-headed.
And in 2019? With this administration's itchy trigger finger coupled with its ardent devotion to falsehood as a political ideology? I'd say American literature's most famous and malleable bureaucratic rule of order still applies.
"Catch-22" streams on Hulu starting Friday.