Joseph Heller’s 1961 novel Catch-22 is one of the greatest anti-war satires ever written. With their six-part Hulu miniseries adaptation, George Clooney and Grant Heslov have nailed the anti-war part. The satire? Well, that’s the catch.
Clooney and Heslov executive-produced this new version, with each directing a pair of episodes (Ellen Kuras handled the other two) from scripts by Luke Davies and David Michôd. Their depiction of World War II’s Mediterranean theater, as seen through the eyes of American bombardier John Yossarian (Christopher Abbott from Girls), is handsome and appropriately shocking. As Yossarian risks his life on one pointless bombing run after another, the direction, the cinematography (by Martin Ruhe) and the digital effects make the flights both clear and unnerving. Each mission offers some stunning new horror that will spur Yossarian in his quest to be grounded by any means necessary. Memorable moments from the novel, such as Yossarian’s midair conversation with a wounded new addition to the crew, are a gut punch. Had this creative team set out to make a straightforward drama about all the atrocities and tragedies of even a “good” war, they likely would have done a strong job.
But Clooney and Co. instead attempted to adapt a famously funny book in which Yossarian’s ordeal is not just nightmare but farce. And virtually all of the miniseries’ attempts at comedy land with all the delicacy of one of Yossarian’s aerial payloads.
Take, for instance, the character of Major Major Major Major (Lewis Pullman). On the page, it’s slyly funny that he’s promoted to that rank because of the repeating name his prankster father gave him. But Davies and Michôd have him continually pause to explain the joke at length, each time beginning, “It’s a funny story.” Not with that much exposition, it’s not.
Or consider the contradictory military order that gives the book and miniseries a title. As base physician Doc Daneeka puts it, any crew member can be grounded for being insane, but only if they ask to be — an act of self-preservation that would render them clearly sane in the eyes of the military. In the book, the exchange where Daneeka lays this out for Yossarian is as ridiculously rat-a-tat as anything from the Marx Brothers or Abbott and Costello. But Heslov casts himself as Daneeka, and he lacks both the verbal dexterity and the flair for playing absurdity to pull it off. And Abbott, who’s good in the dramatic scenes, often seems puzzled whenever a joke is being delivered, as uncertain of what he’s doing there as Yossarian is.
Of the sprawling cast, only a handful of actors even consistently seem to be aware that they’re in a comedy (albeit a very dark one). Clooney goes into full Coen-brothers-goon mode as the martinet parade officer Scheisskopf. Kyle Chandler effectively tweaks his own ramrod image as the sadistically insecure Colonel Cathcart, and there’s a bounce to Daniel David Stewart’s work as Milo Minderbinder, the hustler who quickly figures out how to use his job as mess officer to launch a profitable multinational syndicate. But too many others are playing things straight, or simply haven’t been given anything to play. The great Hugh Laurie, whose gifts for comedy and drama should make him a natural for a project like this, is utterly wasted as Major de Coverley.
The soundtrack is peppered with uptempo big-band hits including “No Love No Nothin’,” by Rosemary Clooney (aunt of George), and “Massachusetts,” by Anita O’Day. These are meant to be ironic counterpoints to Yossarian’s grim missions, but they often feel like an inadvertent critique of the story they’re accompanying. The songs, even the ballads, have rhythm and forward momentum that Catch-22 consistently lacks. The humor stumbles when it should swing.
Catch-22 premieres May 17th on Hulu. I’ve seen all six episodes.