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Catch-22 again eludes capture, but Hulu's six-part miniseries makes a very game go of it


George Clooney orders up a full glare in Catch-22. Hulu photo

Premiering: All episodes stars streaming Friday, May 17th on Hulu
Starring: Christopher Abbott, Kyle Chandler, George Clooney, Hugh Laurie, Grant Heslov, Daniel David Stewart, Rafi Gavron, Austin Stowell, Pico Alexander, Jay Paulson, Jon Rudnitsky, Tessa Ferrer, Julie Ann Emery
Produced by: George Clooney, Grant Heslov, Luke Davies, Ellen Kuras

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George Clooney recurrently loves a man in uniform, dating all the way back to Combat High, a super-obscure 1986 TV movie in which he played Maj. Biff Woods.

He’s since fought his way through The Peacemaker, The Thin Red Line, Three Kings, The Good German, The Monuments Men and a live TV remake of Fail Safe. But Hulu’s six-episode redo of Joseph Heller’s careening, paradoxical anti-war novel is by far Clooney’s most daring mission. Catch-22, published in 1961 and made into a spotty 1970 feature film directed by Mike Nichols, is tough duty for any filmmaker. But here it is, rambling into view as a very nice try that may be as good as anyone will ever get in terms of puzzling all of this out.

Clooney does triple duty as producer, director of two episodes and supporting character who snarls his way through Catch-22’s beginning before returning at its end as Lt./Col./Gen. Scheisskopf. He originally had cast himself in the busier role of Col. Cathcart, but decided to step back, ease his workload and instead deploy Kyle Chandler, who’s superb as the dictatorial group commander of a U.S. Army Air Forces base in Pianosa, Italy.

Catch-22’s central role of reluctant bombardier John “YoYo” Yossarian is played by Christopher Abbott, whose TV work includes supporting parts in Girls and The Sinner. The character is first seen in the nude, his face bloodied before he unleashes a primal yell. It’s then back to Flight Training School at the Santa Ana Army base, where Scheisskopf loudly chews out his underlings for their inability to march in straight lines. At one point he exclaims, “Apparently we’re all a bunch of mongoloids!”

That kind of language since has rightly become a fireable offense. And in that context, it’s worth noting that Catch-22, with its all white male cast (and only brief appearances by women, the majority of them prostitutes) cannot help but look badly out of step, even if it’s true to the World War II realities of the novel. Clooney has chosen not to “re-imagine” any of the principal roles in the interests of casting women or persons of color. Sensitivities being what they are, some will find fault with this -- and they have a point to some extent. After all, Catch-22 is in large part a surreal, satirical novel that is ready-made for diverse casting and applicable to any war.

The title refers to Yossarian’s central dilemma. Following training and his repeated punishments for insolence, he’s quickly transported to “Two Months” later in Italy. Having flown 16 of his required 25 bombing missions, he’s looking for a medical reason to bail on the rest of them. But as Doc Daneeka (Grant Heslov) tells him, an airman is considered crazy if he willingly keeps flying combat missions. But a request to be removed from them, on the grounds of insanity, is in fact evidence of a sane response to putting one’s life in constant danger. So under the military’s “Catch-22” clause, there’s no way out. “That’s some Catch, that Catch-22,” Yossarian says.

The demonic Cathcart otherwise keeps raising the number of mandatory missions while Yossarian repeatedly dodges death but witnesses others breathing their last. Episode 1 ends with him trying to scratch off a leftover blood spatter on the outside window of his aircraft, the Yankee Doodle. It’s a low point for Yossarian, but one of the miniseries’ symbolic high points.

Yossarian’s airmen buddies include Milo Minderbinder (Daniel David Stewart), a symbol of rampant war profiteering, and Major Major Major (Lewis Pullman), whose haphazard promotion to Major adds a fourth. But he has no interest at all in taking charge of anything, ordering his aide to let people in to see him only after he has left the office for the day.

Tessa Fuller occasionally pops in as unyielding Nurse Duckett, who’s dedicated to serving with no questions asked. And Hugh Laurie of House fame plays Major de Coverley, a requisitions officer who completely disappears after Episode 3. This also is the episode in which Cathcart salutes the deaths and bravery of his airmen by treating them with Baked Alaska. But Yossarian and his crew are bypassed for aborting a mission due to a fabricated in-plane intercom malfunction. “And that is not a face that gets Baked Alaska put in it!” Cathcart bellows after shaming them as cowards. As previously noted, Chandler is really good in this role.

Catch-22 also can lag and drag, particularly in an Episode 4 that’s largely devoted to Milo’s far-flung mercenary machinations. Yossarian for some reason joins him, even though he seems to be on the verge of finally getting his discharge. Episode 5 also veers rather wildly at times before Episode 6 finds its bearings in a very moving and extended segment in which Yossarian comforts a badly wounded new member of his crew while their bombing run is still in progress.

The ending differs from the book’s or the previous movie’s wrap-up. It’s absurd on the face of it, but also in keeping with Yossarian’s numbness and surrender to his inescapable realities.

Clooney and company have tried their utmost to navigate the swervy Catch-22. It may well be the last such effort. And they fare better than the movie did without fully sticking the landing. Then again, who could? Bronze stars to all.


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