The star of Catch-22 is a US Air Force bombardier named John Yossarian (Christopher Abbott) who’s stationed in Italy during World War II and surrounded by crazy people in uniform, many of whom seem intent on killing him, and too many of whom appear to be doing so even though they’re ostensibly on his side.
One in particular, Colonel Cathcart (Kyle Chandler), keeps raising the number of missions Yossarian – YoYo for short – and his pals need to fly before they can get honourably discharged and go home. And, statistically speaking, each extra mission reduces their odds of surviving the war, let alone making it back to the US of A.
The TV show adheres pretty closely to the book, and it’s likely the better for it … newcomers and longstanding fans alike ought to find it equally palatable.
Yossarian, quite reasonably, thinks this a tad ridiculous. But it turns out his sense of what’s mad doesn’t only do him no good, it obliterates his chances of getting out of his duties.
See, the Catch-22 of the title revolves around the fact that no sane person would fly bombing missions over Italy and be faced with the extraordinary odds of demise doing so brings. Therefore, a sane person would ask to be grounded. Only, in asking to be grounded the very same person proves themselves to be of sound mind… which means they’re good to fly.
That’s quite some catch
If that sounds absurd, good. Because it is, and it’s only the tip of the insanity iceberg looming large throughout Catch-22, and which made the book upon which it’s based such a cult classic.
The source material’s literary pedigree also means bringing it to the silver screen comes with an awful lot of pressure (Mike Nichols directed a film version in 1970, but it was too condensed to cover the scope of Heller’s novel and arrived to a US audience fatigued of war tales, even smart ones with an anti-war message).
This time around – with six episodes of the limited series to play with – there’s the necessary breathing room for the creators (Luke Davies and David Michôd) to make the novel’s salient points and drive them home.
Catch-22 the TV show adheres pretty closely to the book, and it’s likely the better for it. It speaks to the strength of Heller’s plotting and dialogue rather than a lack of bravery on the part of the show’s creators. It also means newcomers and longstanding fans alike ought to find it equally palatable.
Alongside Yossarian’s ongoing battle against the arbitrary decisions of his commanding officers – equal parts tragic and comic – we get to see the meteoric rise of mess officer Milo Minderbinder (Daniel David Stewart), a first lieutenant who sees the war as one big business opportunity, capitalises on it spectacularly, and reminds viewers that in wartime there’s only ever one obvious winner: big business.
I know that guy
Other highlights include appearances from the likes of George Clooney – who directs two episodes and co-produces the series – and Hugh Laurie, who lend a touch of big-budget feel without stealing the show from the thoroughly capable leads.
Clooney’s involvement doesn’t merely seem like a drawcard, it seems like an act of redemption insofar as Catch-22 feels like what The Men Who Stare at Goats had ambitions of being, thematically and stylistically. Instead, of course, it was simply rubbish.
While Clooney and Laurie get some solid lines and elicit some similarly surefooted chuckles in their roles as senior officers, it’s Chandler’s gloriously rendered Cathcart who best embodies militarism and the mindset required to be good at it. If there’s a one-character summary of the show to be had, it’s his.
“It’s a law of nature that war concentrates power in the hands of those most likely to abuse it,” Nurse Duckett (Tessa Ferrer) reminds YoYo – as if speaking about Cathcart specifically – during one of our protagonist’s repeated visits to the infirmary in an attempt to play hooky.
Duckett’s words are shown to be as true as Yossarian’s assertion to the Chaplain (Jay Paulson) that “insanity is contagious”. Watching it unfold, though, can make for brilliant television.