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The Film Version of 'Catch-22' Looms Large Over Clooney's Wonderful Effort on Hulu
May 17, 2019  | By David Hinckley

The new TV miniseries version of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 – call it the extended remix – may lead casual viewers and even devoted fans to consider the possibility that more is less.

Hulu premieres Catch-22 on Friday with Christopher Abbott (top) as the bewildered soldier John Yossarian, and big names like Kyle Chandler, Hugh Laurie, and George Clooney sprinkled around the cast.  

Clooney also serves as executive producer and directs several episodes, this having become a passion project for him.

The message in Heller’s novel – that war is inherently insane – never becomes less true, so there’s always some value in dusting it off.

The problem with this production lies partly with the shadow it can’t avoid. The 1970 film version, directed by Mike Nichols with Alan Arkin as Yossarian, remains cherished by fans.  

The film, as much as the popular original novel, put the phrase “catch-22” into our national vernacular. People who know nothing of Heller’s specific story still understand the frustrating infuriation of the concept.

In Yossarian’s case, he asks Doc Daneeka (brilliantly played in the miniseries by Grant Heslov) to declare him mentally unfit to fly bombing missions because the fear of being killed has made him insane.

Doc patiently explains that fear is a rational response to the prospect of being killed, and therefore, anyone who has that fear must be sane. That is, fit to fly.

Heller spins off a complex dark satire from that premise, and it’s easy to imagine Clooney and his fellow creators seeing an opportunity here to include more of Heller’s material than was possible in the original two-hour movie.

This miniseries does that. We spend much more quality time with Yossarian as he hits one dead end after another in his increasingly desperate attempts to get himself out of a military uniform.

His concerns aren’t abstract. Catch-22 is set at a U.S. military base in Italy during the final months of World War II, and bombing missions over the territory of the retreating Third Reich often had fatal consequences.

Yossarian has plenty of moments that remind us he’s right about war. When he’s not seeing friends and colleagues die, he and his fellow pilots must obey the cartoonish Scheisskopf (Clooney), who gets promoted all the way up to general and remains obsessed with minutia like the angle of arm swing in marching formation.

Yossarian eventually tries to cut an exit deal with Colonel Cathcart (Chandler), who keeps raising the number of missions a pilot must fly to discharge his obligation. Cathcart has a bit more human nuance than Scheisskopf, just not enough to help Yossarian.

The other pilots have issues, too – like Milo Minderbinder (Daniel David Stewart), who tries to get a land gig by promising Major de Coverley (Laurie) he can deliver contraband lamb chops if de Coverley will put him in charge of the mess hall.

The absurdity of military life against the backdrop of serious life-and-death combat might seem more of a longshot if it hadn’t worked so well for M*A*S*H, which was also a movie before it became a long-running, first-rate TV series.

There’s not much comparison here, though, because Catch-22 takes a different tack. It doesn’t create a series of weekly minidramas. Like Heller’s book, it stays focused on Yossarian’s dilemma and the windmills at which he tilts.

That’s an okay notion, except that too often this Catch-22 feels like it’s ambling when it could be marching.

Compressing Heller’s story into two hours gave the movie a sharp focus, always moving forward.

This version uses the extra time to add a few details and subplots that are interesting, as well as a fair amount of cursing and an R-rated love scene.

In the end, though, it doesn’t tell us anything more than the movie, and it takes longer to do it.

Clooney and particularly Laurie became peripheral if entertaining characters and Abbott seems less comfortable than Arkin with the difficult set of conflicting emotions that wrack Yossarian.

This isn’t a bad production, and it’s all to the good that it stays on point. But if you want a video version of Catch-22, the movie remains the better bet.

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