Since the publication of Catch-22 in 1961, Joseph Heller’s novel has been the basis for a 1970 feature film, a 1973 television-series pilot, a 2007-’08 touring U.S. stage play and, when it premieres Friday, a six-episode Hulu miniseries. Not bad considering the book, which is based on Heller’s experiences as a U.S. Army Air Force bombardier during World War II, first came out to mixed reviews, no awards and only 12,000 hardcovers sold. However, Catch-22 would become a cultural phenomenon because it spoke to young people who feared being shipped off to Vietnam.
Heller actually started writing his book in 1951, as the Korean War beckoned. The first chapter of what was then Catch-18 was published in the literary magazine New World Writing, whose same 1955 edition included an excerpt from what would become Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. It was at the request of Heller’s agent that the title was changed to avoid confusion with a recent World War II novel by Leon Uris called Mila 18. Thus, the phenomenon of, say, being unable to find your eyeglasses because you need them to see so you can find them almost became a Catch-18.
The fictional bureaucratic military rule Catch-22 is applied to a dangerously daring airman named Orr in Heller’s scattershot book, Mike Nichols’ humorously cutting movie, and Hulu’s decidedly darker and effective dramedy (at least based on the first two episodes). The base physician, Doc Daneeka, agrees with young bombardier John “Yo-Yo” Yossarian that Orr must be crazy to enthusiastically keep flying despite repeatedly being shot down and rescued at sea. However, Orr must ask to be grounded because he is crazy and unfit to fly, and the doctor must refuse because the very act of asking proves the airman is sane.
The movie is closer to the book in that the story unfolds in a non-chronological way and different events are depicted from varying points of view. The first Hulu episode starts at the very beginning: basic training at the Santa Ana Army Air Base, whose northern border was two blocks from where this sentence was typed in Costa Mesa. (It was the area between Baker and Wilson streets to the north and south and Newport and Harbor boulevards to the east and west.) We see several flyboys lined up, with the camera pausing just long enough on each face to flash a corresponding nickname. This attempt to introduce the majority of Catch-22’s characters probably read clever in Luke Davies and David Michôd’s script, but there are so many dudes I just gave up.
What snapped me back into formation was Lieutenant Scheisskopf (George Clooney) profanely and hilariously dressing his men down for being fuck-ups, although not nearly as profanely and hilariously as Gunnery Sergeant Hartman (Lee Ermey) did at the beginning of Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. Clooney and his frequent collaborator Grant Heslov developed the project, directed the episodes (along with Ellen Kuras) and executive produced (with Kuras, Davies, Michôd, Richard Brown and Steve Golin). The action shifts from the base to the bedroom, where Yossarian (Christopher Abbott) is banging a hot platinum blonde (Julie Ann Emery). Discovering her link to another character plants the seed in the audience for complications to come, but the rest of the episode pivots to the absolute terror of having anti-aircraft fire exploding all around you while you are inside a flying bomber’s glass bowl. The visual effects are stunning as Abbott conveys with his eyes, sweat and speech Yossarian’s budding post-traumatic stress disorder.
Yossarian serves as the conscience of Catch-22, with the bombardier coming to the realization that his enemies are the Germans trying to blast him out of the sky and his superiors putting him in harm’s way—over and over; just as he nears completion of a quota of missions that will have him leaving his base in Italy for home, sadistic Colonel Cathcart (Kyle Chandler, out of his gore and channeling Curtis LeMay) keeps increasing mission quotas.
Readers around my age are used to such critical depictions in stories set during the Korean (M*A*S*H) and Vietnam (pick a dozen) wars, but not so much on the absurdity of the same conflict that produced the Greatest Generation. Not that the various versions of Catch-22 are nearly as preachy as the last few seasons of TV’s M*A*S*H or as stiflingly gloomy as Oliver Stone’s Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July.
Hulu’s entry really finds its comedic legs in the second episode, especially as it concerns First Lieutenant Milo Minderbinder (Daniel David Stewart), the mess-hall officer-turned-war profiteer who was so brilliantly played by Jon Voight in the original film. Nichols cast that movie so well—check out not only the first slate listing the actors, which begins with Alan Arkin and ends with Orson Welles, but also the second and third cards. Unfortunately, two hours was not sufficient to get to know each well enough for their emotional payoffs.
Clooney and Heslov were smart to add more hours, tell a more linear and realistic story, cast more age appropriately, and include swing music that immediately evokes the 1940s, so that—fingers crossed for future episodes—they could accomplish what Nichols could not.
Matt Coker has been engaging, enraging and entertaining readers of newspapers, magazines and websites for decades. He spent the first 13 years of his career in journalism at daily newspapers before “graduating” to OC Weekly in 1995 as the paper’s first calendar editor. He went on to be managing editor, executive editor and is now senior staff writer.