Catch-22: Clooney’s TV Series of Joseph Heller Eccentric Novel

Joseph Heller’s eccentric, even lunatic World War II novel, contains philosophical monologues, contradictions and paradoxes, and a wide-ranging cast of expendable flyboys centered on the inertly gloomy Yossarian, provides little foothold for any potential reworking.

A 1970 feature adaptation Mike Nichols’ little-remembered third film, made after “The Graduate” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” was so fraught that a Time cover story on the director quoted him as saying he was “pregnant with a dead child” during production. George Clooney’s new attempt, streaming on Hulu May 17, signals the star’s ambition, and his pragmatism.

The star executive produced the series, appears in it, and directed two episodes, and he has come to TV for a reason: It’s a way to surmount a tricky piece of the American literary canon, but to do so with the benefit of six hours and streaming-service money.

Clooney’s satirical dark comedy miniseries, based on the novel of the same name by Joseph Heller, premieres on May 17, 2019, on Hulu in the US.

The series stars Christopher Abbott, Kyle Chandler, Hugh Laurie, and

Clooney executive produced alongside partner Grant Heslov, Luke Davies, David Michôd, Richard Brown, and Steve Golin.

Catch-22 is described by Hulu as “the story of the incomparable, artful dodger, Yossarian, a US Army Air Forces bombardier in World War II who is furious because thousands of people he has never met are trying to kill him. But his real problem is not the enemy, but rather his own army which keeps increasing the number of missions the men must fly to complete their service. Yet if Yossarian makes any attempt to avoid his military assignments, he’ll be in violation of Catch-22, a hilariously sinister bureaucratic rule which specifies that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers which are real and immediate is the process of a rational mind; a man is considered insane if he willingly continues to fly dangerous combat missions, but a request to be removed from duty is evidence of sanity and therefore makes him ineligible to be relieved from duty.”
The new series works better than it should. It elides some of the worst of the novel’s degradation of women, streamlines as best it can the most verbose of the vignettes and builds out Yossarian — played by Christopher Abbott in a performance that announces the leading-man arrival of a long-simmering talent — into a character whose angst we feel. Yet the series, in thrall to and in the shadow of one of the most sharply written novels of its era, never finds a way to live on its own.
What works, here, works well. Abbott deserves special mention for cracking Yossarian. The actor is preceded by a helpful bit of persona: He came to prominence in a fine supporting performance on “Girls” before quitting the show abruptly, then returning seasons later with a tough-guy outer-borough accent. The vocal affectation, which he slightly modifies for “Catch-22,” is telling — Abbott, like many actors of his generation, exists within the sphere of Ryan Gosling’s influence. But he brings something new, too. His lingering macho affect is the last glimmer of a brashness that, we can tell, was already beaten out of him before the story began.

This Yossarian is more worn and more broken than Heller’s.

A crucial scene of senseless violence at the series’ midpoint features Yossarian staring in mournful disbelief, while in the novel he futilely tries to prevent the cataclysm.

This Yossarian knows he shouldn’t bother trying to effect change.

Abbott is more convincing as a character openly disgusted by his cohort’s abuse of women than the Yossarian of the novel, both because this adaptation cleans up Yossarian’s behavior and because Abbott brings a special sensitivity invisible on the page.

The novel’s Yossarian speaks in the same tones as everyone around him — brutish, yet inflected with lofty philosophy. Afforded the opportunity to introduce some shading.

Clooney and his fellow directors–Ellen Kuras and longtime Clooney collaborator Grant Heslov each helmed two apiece–set Yossarian apart from his fellow enlisted men.

The rest of the battalion are well cast to achieve an ambient sameness.

They eventually coagulate into a mass of grumbling compliance. The mass sometimes looks like Rafi Gavron and sometimes like Austin Stowell but never like Abbott.

Yossarian inverts the world around him. His fellow conscripts are benignly accepting of their ever-rising mission count, even eager to fly, but increasingly apocalyptic in their pursuit of off-hours fun; our hero views continued missions as an emergency from which he needs to escape and thus has no need to obliterate himself when the flying’s done. Abbott is at his best in scenes that contrast the doings of war — aerial missions that might elsewhere seem not merely heroic but outright glamorous — with his own beleaguered blankness. He’s not angry or upset at his circumstance. Flying high but unable to take in anything but his own misery, he’s just over it.
A little ironic counterpoint, though, can go a long way. Just as in Clooney’s star vehicle “Up in the Air,” the emptiness of life in the sky loses impact upon frequent repetition. And, on the ground, the project can feel ensnared by its own source material. Notably, dialogue-heavy scenes involving military superiors — played by Clooney, Kyle Chandler, and (best of the three) Hugh Laurie — grow swamped by Heller’s logic puzzles, more fun on their own terms than as language a human must deliver. The novel’s most lasting impact has been the very concept of a catch-22, used generally to refer to an unsolvable paradox but here, specifically, the “catch” that keeps men trapped in the military. (To wit: To know one should be allowed to stop flying indicates a soundness of mind that demands one continue.) The screen time it takes for Heslov, as the base’s doctor, to explain the concept ticks by painfully. Clooney, cast as Lt. Scheisskopf, serves himself a similarly chewy bit of ham as he showily explains, over quite some length, why Yossarian’s having been released from service is not a suitable justification for his actually leaving the base. Piloting comes to feel like a relief, not a grim responsibility: For all the stress it brings Yossarian, at least no one’s talking up there.

 

Cast
Christopher Abbott as John Yossarian
Kyle Chandler as Colonel Cathcart
Hugh Laurie as Major — de Coverley
George Clooney as Lieutenant (later Colonel and eral) Scheisskopf
Daniel David Stewart as Milo Minderbinder
Austin Stowell as Nately
Rafi Gavron as Aarfy Aardvark
Graham Patrick Martin as Orr
Pico Alexander as Clevinger
Jon Rudnitsky as McWatt
Gerran Howell as Kid Sampson
Lewis Pullman as Major Major Major Major
Grant Heslov as Doc Daneeka
Tessa Ferrer as Nurse Duckett
Jay Paulson as The Chaplain
Giancarlo Giannini as Marcello
Harrison Osterfield as Snowden

 

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