'Catch-22': TV Review

Surprisingly good.

George Clooney helps bring Joseph Heller's classic anti-war novel to Hulu as an ambitious, starry, six-part minseries.

It's very apt to the novel itself to say that discretion is the better part of valor in even thinking about filming Joseph Heller's Catch-22, and yet if nobody dreamt big — that is, nobody since Mike Nichols and his 1970 adaptation — we wouldn't have ended up with the surprisingly effective miniseries that Hulu is rolling out May 17.

Executive produced by George Clooney and Grant Heslov — with each directing two episodes — the limited series was developed and written by Luke Davies (Lion) and David Michod (Animal Kingdom), who manage to find the difficult tonal balance of the book: a winning combination of satire, madcap bombast and, most important, deep existential angst that the main character, John Yossarian (Christopher Abbott), manifests in his ever-increasing fear of death as a U.S. bombardier flying missions in Italy during World War II.

Heller's anti-war satire found its strength in humor deflecting (as much as possible) the horror of war. In the process it skewered the military for its sometimes clueless meat-grinder approach to missions, devaluing the individual (allegedly for the greater good) while, in the eyes of Yossarian, becoming just as dangerous as the enemy. A character like Yossarian has to be verbally nimble in a way that induces laughter while also being able to project fear, despair, traumatic stress and hopelessness, a difficult feat that Abbott manages deftly without going too far toward any extreme.

With Abbott finding a middle ground of sorts, it frees up the supporting cast to go skillfully over the top. Kyle Chandler plays the hardcore Col. Cathcart, forever ratcheting up the number of aerial missions needed to be completed, as maniacal. Hugh Laurie as Major de Coverley, forever in pursuit of more posh officers quarters in seized European cities, is blithely funny in his above-it-all approach. The difficulty in dramatizing a book like Catch-22 is that there's a level of baked-in perfection to it, for fans, at least; it's daunting to take it out of a reader's brain and put it in front of their eyes.

There's doom in that choice.

But credit Davies and Michod with staying true to the essence of the book, bringing out its idiosyncratic elements and deeper, more serious existentialism without collapsing on itself. That takes some edits and detours, naturally, but when you've got roughly six hours to land a wildly peculiar classic that balances humor and pathos, reaching the "very good" territory is one hell of a feat.

In addition to Clooney and Heslov, Ellen Kuras directs two episodes as well, and the trio make Yossarian's bombing runs perfectly haunting — enough to induce the kind of fears and impulses toward self-preservation that cause the character to act irrationally. Again, balancing tone in Catch-22 is a very difficult feat, as the story veers, for example, from the ludicrous send-up of mess hall officer turned black marketer Milo Minderbinder (Daniel David Stewart) to Clooney's enraged, spittle-spewing lieutenant Scheisskopf, then back around to any number of the frightened or jaded airmen who eventually succumb to the brutalities of war. 

Even if you haven't read the book or can't quite recall all the participants, it comes back to you, but it's still a challenge to differentiate everyone. Some fans will no doubt wish certain characters had bigger roles or might have minor irritations over how things were condensed, but overall the pacing is strong and the inclusion thorough. One of the difficult aspects is pulling off the more light-hearted, satirical parts when war films and miniseries have pushed in recent years toward the starker and more realistic, which Catch-22 does only sporadically, though with plenty of graphic shock.

Whether Hulu's miniseries can win over fans of the book remains to be seen, but at some point caution itself becomes irrational and it's better just to do the job of trying to make some art. The ambition in Catch-22 should be applauded, as should the results.

Cast: Christopher Abbott, Kyle Chandler, George Clooney, Hugh Laurie, Julie Ann Emery, Jay Paulson, Austin Stowell, Gerran Howell, Jon Rudnitsky, Giancarlo Giannini, Rafi Gavron, Daniel David Stewart, Tessa Ferrer, Kevin J. O'Connor, Graham Patrick Martin

Written by: Luke Davies, David Michod

Directed by: Grant Heslov, Ellen Kuras, George Clooney

Premieres May 17, Hulu