Catch-22

3 out of 5

I was one of those kids who read a book and had it change his life.  The story goes that I read Slaughterhouse Five and realized that you were allowed to break the rules when writing, but then I read Catch-22 and realized that you could pretend like you weren’t breaking the rules and do something sneakily subversive to break your reader’s mind in the meantime.

Yes, I scoured through the rest of Joseph Heller’s works, and would sputter “to live forever or die trying” as a motto while lovingly depressing the poops out of m’self by rereading Something Happened.  I would make semi-yearly pilgrimages through Catch-22, or pretend to, because that was ‘cool’ to me.  But for whatever fronts I put up as an obnoxious literary kid, toting big books around for show, I was reading some hugely important things which were evolving my worldview, and Catch-22 was the springboard to that, as well as a constantly shifting checkpoint I would return to to reshape my thoughts…

I watched the Mike Nichols movie and was left pretty cold by it, but at the same time, I realized I had no idea how one would make the book into a movie, and the film captured something to that effect.  Years and years later, it’s been quite some time since I’ve taken one of those plunges back into the text, and there’s a TV mini-series, co-written by David Michôd and co-directed by George Clooney, and neither of those names inspired much confidence from me.  But it’s an adaptation, so the normal rules apply: take it on its own terms.  And while I think a 6-episode series is a better vehicle than a movie, and while the show definitely got some aspects right, I had to keep circling back around: how do I feel about this?  Do I like it?  Memories of the book came flooding back, vividly, but that might have confused things further; not due to ‘they didn’t do this or that right’ woes, rather because I couldn’t figure out if I was only enjoying those bits because of the memories.

Catch-22, the series, is about John Yossarian (Christopher Abbott), bombardier in World War II, fretting over his inability to leave the war – get close to his mission quota, and they raise the quota by five – and the fact that everyone seems out to kill him, directly or indirectly.  This is played for laughs, with John pulling pranks and faking medical emergencies to shirk duty however possibly, and then the politics and business of war are played for farce, with befuddled Lieutenants and Colonels spouting conflicting nonsense, including Catch-22, which states that you’d have to be crazy to stay in the war, but if you recognize you’re crazy, you must be sane.  …And then it’s also played for drama, with hefty musical stings underlining sobering bombing runs, and for tragedy, framing the series with a sequence that finds Yossarian covered in someone’s blood, screaming.  But unfortunately, Catch-22, the series, doesn’t manage to be much about anything, and that was my worry regarding Michôd and Clooney, guys who, in my opinion, are good at creating a sense of mood and place, but always at a self-aware remove.  That can work, but the particular stance they tend to take stands at that remove with a smirk, so all of those sub-genres mentioned at which Catch-22 plays really all come under an ‘ain’t it clever?’ banner, which deflates opportunities for the material to make a lasting impression.  Visually, it’s too clean: we see sweat and dirty and blood, but it feels pretty, and kempt; that framing sequence sits too easily alongside the comedy, and none of it quite feels like reality.

But that artifice does work for some moments, especially supported by the actors who weren’t just havin’ a larff on the sidelines.  Abbott, as Yossarian, manages to stand tall amidst the more middling material, finding a near-perfect balance of simmering emotions for his character, not leaning in to the more absurd moments, and then believably tampering John’s fears and sadness with the scrambling logic of a man just trying to survive.  Kyle Chandler’s Colonel Cathcart, though a humorous role – the most frequent stand-in for the ridiculousness of authority in the show – is toned down to something that properly exists within reality, unlike Clooney’s take on Lieutenant Scheisskopf, unfortunately opening and closing the show, which just comes across as a guy who couldn’t wait to break out laughing once calling ‘cut.’  And Daniel David Stewart’s Milo Minderbinder – mess hall officer turned business entrepreneur – represents one of the show’s best ongoing gags, with Milo hustling trade for his ‘Syndicate’ to extremes and yet always managing to convince us that Milo, shyster though he may be, also seems like a good guy.  This trio of actors, as well as a few others here and there, make the humanity of Catch-22 outshine the limitations of its presentation.  When these guys are in the spotlight, pieces click together; it feels like we could be watching a rather brilliant satire.

And then a recognizable boogie-woogie tune will play on the soundtrack, bright cinematography makes us feel safe, and the show recedes into its giggling-at-itself sense.  It’s not unenjoyable – I watched all six episodes back to back, easily – but that ‘easily’ in and of itself feels like a problem, because comedy, drama, tragedy: no single aspect stopped me in my tracks at any point.

In the book, there’s a sense of madness and animatedness fueling things, which is why I couldn’t figure out how it should be properly adapted.  Nichols attempted that, I think, with something very scattershot; Clooney and crew approached it maybe too simply, as material to just be scripted and shot.  Neither one was supremely effective on its own terms, but Catch-22, the series, made war watchable, for better or worse.