“Catch-22” is, thankfully, not solely about war. What George Clooney and Grant Heslov’s new limited series has to say about soldiers dying for their country isn’t as revolutionary as Joseph Heller’s words were when first published in 1961, even if Hulu’s six-part TV adaptation blends his divergent storytelling into one, largely chronological experience. Scripts by Luke Davies and David Michôd do a fine job capturing the absurdity inherent to young men in the prime of their lives throwing themselves into danger for orders that don’t make sense and men they will never meet.
The battle of perception, profit, and pride is what matters more than survival — but these observations, even when captured with a black comic wink, are dated. Thankfully, this spin on “Catch-22” finds fresher relevance in exploring what it’s like to live as the sole sane person in a world filled with dangerous empowered insanity. Plenty of progressive thinkers (like John “YoYo” Yossarian) feel trapped in a Trump dystopia, where logic is lost and loyalty is all that matters. The series doesn’t always escape its redundancies — it’s far from thrilling — but Clooney manages to turn flaws into themes, using repetition to create a hostile environment slowly closing in on each young soldier.
Christopher Abbot (“The Sinner”) plays YoYo, a U.S. Air Force bombardier flying a never-ending string of missions during the second World War. Unlike the prevailing past descriptions of how soldiers are supposed to act and who they’re supposed to be, YoYo isn’t heroic. He’s scared, unruly, and a radical thinker. Rather than run head first into battle from the front lines, he’s desperate to get out of the missions he’s legally required to perform. As soon as he drops the bombs on his given target, YoYo starts heckling his pilot to get the hell out of there — he didn’t want to be there in the first place, so he sure as shit doesn’t want to spend one more second dodging explosions in the sky.
His time on the ground is spent scheming for ways to get out of his missions or killing time in the lakes and oceans nearby. YoYo pleads with Doctor Daneeka (Grant Heslov) to give him a medical discharge. He asks Major Major (played by Lewis Pullman) — a former captain promoted to major because the higher-ups thought his confusing birth-name was his rank — to find an obscure rule he can break that’ll send him home. Otherwise, he tries to avoid pissing off his commanders, Scheisskopf (Clooney) and Colonel Cathcart (Kyle Chandler), or face his mandatory mission count raised yet again.
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That’s how they keep him there, legally speaking: Whenever someone approaches their mission quota, it’s raised in order to keep the bombardiers fighting. But there’s much more going on behind-the-scenes than higher-ups juking the stats. Perceptions that they’re winning the war run counterintuitive to the amount of missions they’re assigned. A private named Milo (Daniel David Stewart) turns a gig as Mess Officer into an international “syndicate,” which profits both sides of the war. YoYo’s fellow non-commissioned officers trick themselves into believing false realities. Some buy into the patriotic rah-rah that YoYo cannot. Others convince themselves they’re already dead, just so they can keep fighting with a smile on their face. One even thinks he’s in love with an Italian sex worker.
There are two forms of pure entertainment in “Catch-22,” and one is these men. Directors Clooney, Heslov, and Ellen Kuras (helming two episodes a piece) take every opportunity to capture the 20-something soldiers in various states of undress. They’re swimming in short-shorts, showering in groups, or, in YoYo’s case, starting the series by strolling totally naked across the tarmac. This beefcake parade isn’t sexual (not that anyone would complain) — it’s clinical. Viewers are meant to admire the men’s physical perfection, even as their minds are warped through war. How can such beauty be so mindlessly destroyed? It’s a question that will float through your head as sleepy scenes of R&R play out like a summer vacation inside a snowglobe; their happiness isn’t real because their environment is trying to kill ’em.
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So, too, is the other exemplary form of fun: Kyle Chandler. While Clooney has a good time hamming it up as the clownish Scheisskopf and Hugh Laurie lends his inflated charisma to just a few choice scenes, Chandler is the supporting stand-out. No doubt cast as a clever meta subversion of his iconic role in “Friday Night Lights,” this speechifying leader is cloudy-eyed and full of crap. Cathcart isn’t the biggest buffoon on the base, but his screaming matches with stunned cadets elicit the heartiest guffaws of the series; he’s big and broad when called on to represent the ridiculousness of war, yet totally dialed in when adding to his character. Chandler makes eating a tomato look like high art.
“Catch-22” isn’t quite wild enough to join TV’s elite satires or sharp enough to leave a mark as lasting as its source material. But it has its moments, and those moments add up to an entrancing experience. At times, the limited series manages to transcend war, asking its audience to consider the bigger picture: If YoYo is forever destined to risk his life bombing buildings and bridges, what sort of trap are today’s youths enlisted into? Is it patriotism? America? Big business? The everyday monotony of what’s expected vs. what you really want?
There’s no real answer here. Clooney isn’t proposing a solution to America’s current catch-22 — a war between sanity and insanity, where it’s rational to identify the danger in this world, but rationality’s absence from the discourse means it’s needed more than ever. Either way, you can’t escape. The only way to survive is to avoid the war in the first place.
“Catch-22” premieres all six episodes Friday, May 17 on Hulu.