Article Thumbnail

‘Catch-22’ Uses an Old War to Fight a Tired Battle

Plus some other random thoughts about the new Hulu miniseries

More often than not these days, a World War II drama isn’t really about World War II. Take Dunkirk, which, although it’s set almost 80 years ago, could be read as a principled stand against encroaching fascism in today’s world — the idea is that what happened back then is, suddenly, what’s going on right now. All war movies are metaphors for something, I suppose — masculinity, loss of innocence, the scourge of violence — but if you’re watching a World War II story in 2019, the odds are good that you’re meant to pick up on the contemporary relevance.

And yet, the new Hulu miniseries Catch-22 very much feels like a show about World War II. No doubt the creative team, which includes George Clooney and Animal Kingdom writer-director David Michôd, want us to notice modern parallels in their adaptation of Joseph Heller’s classic antiwar novel. But Catch-22’s six episodes are oddly inert. As well-cast, well-directed and well-put-together as this remake is, it succeeds in telling you precisely nothing about anything that you don’t already know. In fact, you’ve probably already learned most of these things from other war dramas. For years, many thought that the 1961 novel couldn’t be filmed. (Mike Nichols tried in 1970, and his movie got tepid reviews.) But now that Hulu has done it, I’m not quite sure why they bothered.

The book was a biting satire, but the miniseries is a little more emotional and muted, telling the story of John Yossarian (Christopher Abbott), a U.S. bombardier who finds himself stationed in the Mediterranean. Like any self-respecting individual, he wants to get the hell out of there, but there’s a catch — a catch-22, actually. Because he realizes that his job is incredibly dangerous, the base doctors deem him sane, and therefore fit for duty. (If he were completely cool with his missions, he’d be insane, and would then be possibly eligible to go home.) Catch-22 follows his misadventures while also checking in on other oddball characters, like the base’s moronic, blowhard commander, Colonel Cathcart (Kyle Chandler).

At this late stage, you don’t need Catch-22 (or, frankly, any movie or TV show) to tell you that war is hell. Or that the guys in charge don’t know what they’re doing. Or that combat changes a man, and not for the better. Oddly, though, Catch-22 proceeds to tell us these things — and then it tells us them again. The series is never less than competent, but it’s rarely close to inspired, and I often grew impatient. I kept wondering why this Catch-22 felt so tied to the past while ignoring everything that’s happened in the world since.

One of my chief complaints stems from the producers’ decision to feature period-specific tunes — such as big band music — over these scenes of boredom, anxiety, grief and ennui. It only adds to Catch-22’s old-timey irrelevance, making Yossarian and his troubles seem so long ago. Whereas more recent films like The Hurt Locker have demonstrated how devastating wartime conflict can be, Catch-22 feels like a dim echo from a long-ago skirmish. The music places the story, and its themes, in a rosy, irretrievable past, almost as if we don’t need to ponder these issues today.

In a recent Variety cover story, Clooney and others talked about what they considered to be the book’s contemporary resonance. “This show speaks to how a lot of people might be feeling about the current climate, being caught up in an insane bureaucracy,” a Paramount television executive said. “So it’s timely, even though it’s set in World War II.” Although Clooney seemed less concerned about making this miniseries “timely,” he added, “Wherever you stand on the political spectrum, everybody wakes up and feels that there is some dark cloud sort of looming over you. Yossarian every morning wakes up feeling that way.”

But the problem is that Catch-22, like recent Clooney-directed films such as Suburbicon, feels pretty pleased re-litigating the past in ways that are fairly obvious. As the Variety story suggests, yes, there’s a gentle irony in the fact that Yossarian wants to escape World War II — a sentiment that undercuts the fantasy we’ve been sold of the Greatest Generation bravely and boldly doing all they could to defeat tyranny. But even that historical rewrite feels tame in comparison to something like The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson’s merciless, emotional portrait of a damaged war veteran who returns to civilian life just as America is trying to remake itself as a global superpower. Catch-22 says all the right things about the immorality of war, but not in any way that actively challenges its audience. The miniseries congratulates you for being on Yossarian’s side and against the generals and bureaucrats, who aren’t particularly memorable in their stupidity. The miniseries chronicles an old war and fights an old battle.

I’d argue that, in some ways, it’s fairly easy to remake Catch-22 in 2019. Obviously, the book’s fractured narrative would make any adaptation challenging, but Heller’s story speaks to a bygone era, safely cut off from our own. (One of the big gripes about the book is its terrible misogyny, which Clooney and his fellow producers took pains to correct in their version.) As a result, I mostly watched this Catch-22 at a healthy remove, rarely thinking about how it applied to my own life, or what it might be saying to me. I’m not in the business of questioning why new work exists — “to make money” and “because the people involved wanted to do it” are all the explanation one needs — but the Hulu miniseries does feel strangely purposeless.

Weirdly, this isn’t the first time a Catch-22 has faced these criticisms. Back in 1970, when Nichols’ film came out, some of the same complaints were lodged. Roger Ebert wrote in his mixed review, “Do we still have to be told war is stupid because officers are dumb? This is an enlisted man’s bitch from 16 wars ago.” What also hurt that Catch-22 was the arrival of Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H, which hit theaters only a few months earlier. There, a story about the Korean War was used as a window into a more contemporary conflict, the Vietnam War, showing a level of blood and insanity that was unusual — especially in a supposed comedy. M*A*S*H made Nichols’ film feel old-hat, even though it, too, was trying to speak about the disastrous Vietnam conflict.

To be fair, the new Catch-22 arrives at a different ending than the book — or the Nichols’ film — that suggests something unsettling about the permanence of war, which does feel painfully pertinent. We’ve stopped fighting World War II, but our overseas skirmishes are certainly not a thing of the past — there are no longer Great Wars, merely endless ones that we barely even notice anymore. And Abbott’s a strong, insular actor who makes for a pensive, disillusioned Yossarian. Plus, the level of craft and care throughout the series is top-notch.

But at a time when we have actual Nazis to worry about — to say nothing of an imperiled Constitution, global warming and a foreign nation that interfered in the last election — a mild satire about a guy dealing with Grumpy Coach Taylor, Army Commander just doesn’t feel all that dramatically necessary. There’s just something a little too cozy — a little too glib — about the whole mission. Heller’s book spoke to his times, while Hulu’s remake ignores ours.

Here are three other takeaways from Catch-22.

#1. How did ‘Catch-22’ get its name?

It’s impressive enough to write a masterpiece — imagine at the same time coining a phrase that becomes ingrained in the culture. Joseph Heller did both with Catch-22. Before his book, we didn’t have an expression for the kind of circular logic that’s at the heart of bureaucratic thinking. As defined by Merriam-Webster, a catch-22 is “a problematic situation for which the only solution is denied by a circumstance inherent in the problem or by a rule.” And here’s the infamous passage from Heller’s novel:

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane, he had to fly them. If he flew them, he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to, he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.

Since 1961, whenever someone has said, “Well, that’s a catch-22,” that person owes a debt to Heller. But where did the idea of calling this loophole a catch-22 come from?

Doing a little digging, I learned that, initially, Heller went with Catch-18. But his editor, Robert Gottlieb, said no to the title, worrying it would be confused with Mila 18, a book that had recently been published by Exodus bestseller Leon Uris. But what number to use instead? In a 2011 piece for The Paris Review, Heller’s daughter Erica recalled how, when she was a kid, her father futilely brainstormed other possible titles with her mother:

“‘Catch-27?’ Nah, my father shook his head. ‘Catch-539?’ Too long, too lumbering. I had no idea what they were talking about. Thank goodness for Bob, Dad’s übereditor at Simon & Schuster; he was the one to come up with the unremarkably remarkable number 22.”

(By the way, the Paris Review post also includes a great photo of Heller’s original handwritten manuscript with “catch-18” in there.)

Why 22? According to a 2012 Atlantic story, Heller and his editor “decided 11 didn’t work because of Ocean’s 11; 14 was ‘an unfunny number’; and 26 just didn’t feel right.” Reportedly, Gottlieb liked 22 because “[i]t’s funnier than 18.”

Would a different number have made a difference? Probably not, but it’s amusing to think that the sluggish original Ocean’s 11, the one with Frank Sinatra and his Rat Pack cronies, kept us all from referring to a certain logic problem as a catch-11.

#2. Remember when Joseph Heller wrote a sequel to ‘Catch-22’?

Supposedly, Heller had a two-word response for those who wondered why he never wrote a book as good again as his first novel, Catch-22: “Who has?” Not that he didn’t try with works like Something Happened and Good as Gold. Still, Catch-22 has been held up as a classic for so long that probably nothing Heller wrote afterward could compare. But that didn’t stop him from writing a sequel late in his life.

It’s not well-remembered, but in 1994 — 33 years after the publication of Catch-22 — Heller put out Closing Time, which looks at a handful of that previous book’s characters to see where they are now, including John Yossarian. Turns out, he’s been busy, dabbling in everything from writing to investment banking to PR. And while Yossarian was always viewed as Heller’s alter ego, the older version of the character definitely seems drawn from the writer’s life: Like Heller, he’s fallen in love with a nurse who’s caring for him. (Heller married his second wife, a nurse named Valerie Humphries, after being diagnosed with Guillain–Barré syndrome.) Heller, who died in 1999 at the age of 76, tried to shoot down those comparisons, somewhat. In an interview with The New York Times, he said, “I am not the subject of [Closing Time] — although, in this particular book, I’ve used more of the details of my own experience and background than I’ve ever done before.”

Closing Time got mixed reviews when it came out, with some enjoying the chance to view Yossarian as an old man, while others wondered why Heller bothered revisiting a masterpiece. Kirkus Reviews wrote, “Heller spends most of the time kvetching about getting old and dying. … A line aimed at Yossarian applies to Heller as well: ‘You sound so bitter these days. You used to be funnier.’ Be content with the original and pretend the sequel never happened.”

But Heller’s acknowledgement of his own looming demise couldn’t help but inform Closing Time’s tone. And even he admitted that the book’s description of Yossarian fit him as well: “a man who likes to be alone much of the time, thinks and daydreams a lot, doesn’t really enjoy the give-and-take of companionship all that much, falls silent much of the time and broods and is indifferent to everything someone else might be talking about.”

Is it strange that, near the end of his life, Yossarian sounded a lot like many guys I know now?

#3. Here’s the Christopher Abbott movie you need to see next.

After all this time, I suppose that Christopher Abbott is still best known for Girls, where he played Marnie’s boyfriend, whom she eventually dumps. Abbott was quite good on the Lena Dunham show, but he’s really shown his range in subsequent smaller indie films that not enough people have seen. For many viewers, Catch-22 will be their first experience of him since Girls. If you’re one of them, and are curious what he’s been doing in the last six years, let me recommend James White, which is a terrific character study of a young man who’s fascinatingly unfathomable.

This 2015 drama follows James (Abbott) as he angrily rambles through his anxiety-ridden life in New York. He’s trying to make it as a writer, but he’s too focused on partying to make much of a go of it. Plus, he has to care for his dying mother Gail (Cynthia Nixon), who’s just about all the family he has left now that his father, who left Gail years ago, has died. If James were anybody else, he’d have to grow up, get a job and take stock of his life. But because he comes from money, he gets to bypass those important coming-of-age moments. Except, as James White argues, he probably needs some obstacles if he’s ever going to amount to anything.

James White barely made a ripple when it came out, but this nuanced film, which is supposedly loosely based on writer-director Josh Mond’s own experience dealing with a mom stricken with cancer, is one of the best about dying in recent years. There’s no happy ending in store for Gail, and as James spends more time with this woman he loves, they both realize an important bond will be ending just as her life does. What will James do once she’s gone? Will he ever pull himself together?

James White is a tough-love look at a screw-up, and Abbott keeps challenging our perceptions of him, allowing James to range from sympathetic to insufferable. If you like Abbott in Catch-22, you’ll be impressed by the grit and rawness he brings to this performance. Watch more of his work and you’ll soon realize it’s kind of his M.O.