There were once 16 million Americans who fought and survived World War II; this year, the number of those veterans who are still alive will dip below 400,000; in five years, fewer than 100,000 will be left. What remains, besides history books and memorial sites, is an extraordinary culture trove centered on the American experience of the war — novels, songs, movies, musicals, TV shows, documentaries — and the tender gratitude that grew into an agreed upon nickname, the Greatest Generation.
What gets lost in all the solemnity is a recognition that the human condition is a complex state of being. World War II is full of stories of doubt, despair and many other things that don’t look like honor or courage.
That’s part of the reason Hulu’s enjoyable and surprisingly poignant six-episode adaptation of Joseph Heller’s novel “Catch-22” is such a refreshing find: It’s nice to be reminded that, along with their heroism, the World War II generation possessed a healthy dose of cynicism, a distrust of power, a heightened sense of mischief, an insatiable horniness and a willingness, at times, to subvert the system to one’s benefit.
All of this was and still is personified in one John Yossarian (Christopher Abbott), a B-25 bombardier in the U.S. Army Air Forces, who gives voice to the outrage of war — that he never sees or knows the people he’s killing in the Italian countryside thousands of feet below him. Underlying this senselessness is Yossarian’s cowardice: Isn’t it normal to be afraid to die? Aren’t courage and valor rather abstract concepts, designed to mask anxiety and fear?
“Catch-22” was first published in 1961 and caught on with the nascent peace movement, hailed as a modern classic, and then assigned to high school and college students, who consider most reading assignments an infliction and therefore might have missed Heller’s finer points of satire. That sharp humor was also somewhat difficult to glean from Mike Nichols’s 1970 movie adaptation, which starred a young Alan Arkin as Yossarian and had its thunder more or less swiped by another antiwar comedy called “M.A.S.H.”
Hulu’s version — written and created by Luke Davies and David Michôd and shepherded by executive producer George Clooney and others — strips “Catch-22” down to its essential brilliance and then builds it back up into a sweeping, beautifully filmed, humorous yet tragic tale of a young man forever changed by war.
Abbott excels at portraying Yossarian’s contrarian insouciance, beginning at a California training camp where he is having an affair with the wife (Julie Ann Emery) of his ill-tempered, obsessive-compulsive training commander, Col. Scheisskopf (Clooney). Counting on the war being over before he can be assigned, Yossarian instead quickly finds himself in combat, riding in the claustrophobic glass-enclosed nose of a B-25 to line up targets while flak explodes all around him and the risk of death is high.
Back at his base on the small Mediterranean island of Pianosa, Yossarian begs the infirmary’s physician, Doc Daneeka (Grant Heslov), to declare him mentally unfit for combat.
Daneeka says he can’t, because it’s a classic Catch-22: “Anybody who wants to get out of combat duty isn’t really crazy. Catch-22 specifies that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of danger — real and immediate — is the process of a rational mind.”
“That’s some catch, that Catch-22,” Yossarian says.
“It’s the best there is,” Daneeka replies.
Even with some early sex scenes and graphic battle gore, the series seems at first to be a tad anachronistic — almost as if Davies and Michôd are working too hard to replicate an old-fashioned feel for storytelling and dialogue. It soon settles in, however, making the most of modern editing techniques and exquisite locations that only add to the contrast between war and peace. To make its point about horror and fear, this “Catch-22” takes time to fixate on the beauty of young men and women swimming off the coast, carousing in nearby villas, having the time of their lives.
Many of those lives are cut short. As Yossarian desperately tries to reach his mission quota, it keeps being raised by the hard-assed Col. Cathcart (“Friday Night Lights’s” Kyle Chandler, who seems to have a grand time snacking on scenery), dashing his hopes of going home. As his friends keep dying around him, Yossarian begins to panic. His sanity finally comes in for legitimate doubt and the lasting themes in “Catch-22” are affirmed: There is very little to celebrate about having gone to war.
Catch-22 (six episodes) now streaming on Hulu.