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'Catch 22' Review: A 'Beautiful' And 'Horrifying' Adaptation Of The Anti-War Novel

May 17, 2019
Originally published on May 17, 2019 5:46 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Hulu faced a big challenge with its latest limited series - turn a complicated, beloved, sweeping novel into six episodes of television. We're talking about the classic Joseph Heller book from 1961, "Catch-22." The project is executive-produced by George Clooney and stars Chris Abbott. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans says it's a beautiful, horrifying adaptation of one of the best anti-war novels in literature.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Not many actors can match George Clooney when he's playing an earnest leader of men trying to find a difficult solution.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CATCH-22")

GEORGE CLOONEY: (As Scheisskopf) I've been staying up at night. I've been saying to myself, how are we going to win this thing, boys?

DEGGANS: But when that leader is Lieutenant Scheisskopf, the officer from "Catch-22" who famously berates his soldiers for failing to win marching competitions while training to fight in World War II, well, the result is a satirical farce worthy of the Coen brothers.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CATCH-22")

CLOONEY: (As Scheisskopf) Why can you not walk a straight line? Why can you not turn a 90-degree angle after 11 weeks? Why do you not seem to care that we are nine days from the inter-squadron parade jamboree?

DEGGANS: Clooney's intensity lends an extra level of absurdity to the few instances where he chews scenery as Scheisskopf. He also directs two episodes, helping establish the miniseries' lush, expansive look. The center of Hulu's "Catch-22" is Christopher Abbott, from HBO's "Girls," in a breakout role as John Yossarian. He's a bombardier who's far more worried that the oblivious venality of his superiors will get him killed than any acts as soldier. Some of his buddies are still fooled by tales of patriotism and serving the war effort, but Yossarian knows the real reason why Scheisskopf keeps them marching around.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CATCH-22")

CHRISTOPHER ABBOTT: (As Yossarian) The more pointless the activity, the greater our humiliation and the more power he feels. And we can sit here and pretend all we want that there must be some more noble, war effort-type purpose. But there isn't one. We do parades so Scheisskopf can feel like a tough guy.

DEGGANS: At first, Yossarian - his pals call him Yo-Yo - comes off as a needling, selfish complainer. But when the show recreates what it's like to sit in a plane full of bombs, trying to drop your payload while antiaircraft fire fills the air...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CATCH-22")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, unintelligible).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, unintelligible).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character, unintelligible).

DEGGANS: ...Well, you see that Yo-Yo kind of has a point. The production recreates the horror of flying bombing missions with jarring detail. One moment, when a friend of Yo-Yo's is blown out of another plane and briefly clings to the window outside Yossarian's bomber before falling away is searing and unforgettable. Small wonder Yo-Yo decides he wants out of a military run by incompetents who might kill him with their cluelessness. But when he asks for a psychological deferment from a doctor, played by another director-executive producer on the project, Grant Heslov, Yo-Yo learns about the no-win scenario called catch-22.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CATCH-22")

GRANT HESLOV: (As Doc Daneeka) Anyone 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.

ABBOTT: (As Yossarian) What?

HESLOV: (As Doc Daneeka) Or would be crazy to want to fly more missions and sane if he didn't. But if he's sane then he has to fly them. If he flies him then he's crazy, and so he doesn't have to. But if he doesn't want to then he's sane, and so he has to.

ABBOTT: (As Yossarian) That's some catch, that catch-22.

HESLOV: (As Doc Daneeka) It's the best there is.

DEGGANS: Slowly, the tale turns darker as more of Yo-Yo's friends are killed and he has more dehumanizing experiences. It's a story that impacts audiences a little differently in 2019, thanks to the influence of anti-war TV shows and movies, like "MASH" and "Apocalypse Now." These days, we know war is filled with brutal absurdity, and many military leaders have feet of clay. But watching Yo-Yo and his buddies slowly discover this crushing truth in a miniseries that often has the look and feel of more sentimental war pictures, well, that's where the true power of Hulu's "Catch-22" resides. I'm Eric Deggans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.