It is not every novelist who can claim to have introduced a phrase to everyday life but Joseph Heller is one such example. His 1961 novel Catch 22 introduced a phrase describing a paradoxical situation in which "the only solution is denied by a circumstance inherent in the problem or by a rule." The most commonly used example these days relates to unemployment wherein people find they can’t get a job without experience but it is not possible to get that experience without a job. Rules like this can be also be used to ensure compliance in any work situation. In H’s novel set in the final months of World War2, it applies to a clause wherein you can be exempt from flying missions if you are crazy but if you report your condition this makes you sane and therefore you have to fly - "anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn't really crazy," as a character explains.
Last year a new adaptation of this classic novel was made for Hulu in the form of a six part mini series. It had previously made into a film released in 1970 starring Alan Arkin and Martin Balsam but even at two hours its been acknowledged by critics that the movie couldn’t really fully encompass the novel’s reach. “Disjoined” and “deeply flawed” were amongst the reactions at that time. Though the story is now nearly sixty years old its approach seems to fit current cynicism about warfare rather better than it would have less than twenty years after the time it is set. Indeed Heller later confirmed the story was more shaped by later conflicts than the one it depicts.
The mini-series format allows for more of the knotty story to be included. Unlike the novel which flicks between different character’s perspectives and darts back and forth through time frames the narrative is presented chronologically. The series was well received many saying it does capture the book while also making for a well- constructed piece of television. In an interview last year George Clooney, one of the producers, credited scriptwriters Luke Davies and David Michod’s work in adapting the novel; “I think David and Luke did an amazing job with sort of unspooling these characters because, when you do a movie, you don’t have enough time to really get to know the characters, and that’s why you do this as a television show, is you get to spend time with the characters like the book does. And they just figured out a way to interpret it in a way that we didn’t think was really possible.”
The story follows Yossarian, a US Air Force bombardier stationed in Italy who is trying various methods to get out of dangerous bombing missions. However the zealous base commander keeps increasing the number of missions the crews must fly while Yossarian’s attempts to dodge them only result in increasingly places others at risk. I’ve never read the book but it has been called un-filmable and you can see why as it is a multi -character story (apparently even this version cut characters) and shifts from comedy to terror in a moment. While it is a satire designed to show the endless bureaucracy of war and how removed it is from the actual events the soldiers encounter yet to fully display that we have to see some of that conflict which means it lurches suddenly into very serious drama.
Initially it is not clear just how the serial will play. The early part seems comedic with a lengthy sequence involving parade ground protocol with Clooney himself playing a boggle eyed General. There’s great word play and some very amusing moments. Then as if to emphasise the shift from the pettiness of the parade ground to the horror of war, the bombing missions are shot as well as any on the big screen. In crowded, rickety planes the crew can barely hear each other and the air around them is constantly strafed by a barrage of explosions. You can soon see why Yossarian wants out!
The irony of his constant attempts to escape the bombing missions is that he is actually better at the missions than he is at avoiding them. In part 4 when he resolves to undertake as many as possible completing eleven in six days we see a skilled operative at work. When he misses a target, he insists the crew go back; not the decision you might expect from someone we’d earlier seen faking illness to escape.
Yossarian may be the hero of his story but he is an unknown villain of other peoples as many of his actions are the direct or indirect cause of casualties. We see this early on when he causally directs a new recruit to the wrong place, realises his error but doesn’t really make an effort to correct it. As a result this poor pilot is killed on his first mission, one he would never had been on had he gone to the right tent. It is Yossarian’s actions that cause another officer Major De Coverley to go missing. Even the simple act of moving a piece of string on a chart has wider implications. Yet it’s not all too serous- there’s a lighter interlude when he spends time in a villa after being shot down with a most unfortunate injury. An interesting aspect of the story (and I assume it is the same in the novel) is to have its main character remaining outwardly mostly calm; the tension is all internal until a pivotal scene in part six.
Of all the varied crewmen we meet, he seems the most sane at least outwardly – the panic is in his eyes and in his head. As a result of all this he is often a protagonist it is not easy to like; his ability to escape culpability could turn a viewer against him and its only in the latter two episodes that we see his own humanity. Played straight is one of the novel’s keynote scenes where Yossarian struggles to help an injured rookie called Snowden and is tending the wrong wound while reassuring him he’ll be fine. It is only when he tries to move the soldier that he sees the gaps in the metal behind where Snowden was sitting. After all the clever words and dark sarcasm Yossarian can only resort to a primal yell. He suddenly seems to realise the implications and that the war is not just about him- he is stripped figuratively and as it turns out literally, refusing to wear clothes again. Christopher Abbott carries this role so well, conveying the character’s evolution while always allowing a little charm to show through until the pressure grows. The role is offered as a low key contrast to the shouting, eccentricity and compliance all around him.
Inevitably the serial needs to show us the horror of what these people are living through and because a tv serial allows us longer contact the results are gut wrenching. The visual effects for a small screen production are tremendous so you feel the jeopardy and the fear as well as the randomness of death. From the confined innards of shaky planes to some huge on the ground explosions the serial is peppered with sudden dangers. There are also smaller moments that underscore the human cost as cameras linger on abandoned kit bags of fallen colleagues and we continue to see young recruits killed. However much conflict horror we see the characters just carry on, there is barely time to linger over any one loss. There is an ensemble of both soldiers and officers any of whom are liable to vanish from the narrative in an instant- there’s a huge shock at the end of part 3 that comes literally out of the blue. Later on we also glimpse some of the horrors that occur on the periphery of war but away from the battleground horrors that are seemingly ignored by authorities notably a disturbing rape.
One strand also shows how some people can benefit from the war in the form of well known character Milo Minderbinder often referred to as the `embodiment of American capitalism`. He uses different tactics to avoid any flights managing to become mess officer and creating a mini enterprise staffed by an increasing number of civilians under the noses of officers who benefit from his business acumen. Somehow he seems to be able to do as he pleases compared to the timetable Yossrian is kicking against. His network stretches beyond the Americans and even beyond the war; it’s almost like a separate novel could be written about him.
Daniel David Stewart is pin sharp and silver tongued in a great role and you really believe he could sell or buy anything. This is a more sympathetic reading of the character than the novel painted him by all accounts- with his own `army` of Italian conscripts , staged bombing raids arranged with the Germans and endless supplies of food he becomes more of a comic relief of enormous proportions. We even see scenes where he has been made the Mayor of Palermo! Everywhere he goes he is cheered by locals like a visiting dignitary. One running gag the production uses is that whenever he starts to explain something some surrounding noise drowns it out so his actual methods remain elusive to the viewer, perhaps a representation of how the business world is something those of us outside never fully understand. All the time Milo comes out on top; indeed I was expecting some downfall but there is none. It’s easy to see the progress of any renowned businessman in this character. Essentially he is the opposite of Yossarian, able to find personal gain in every opportunity, seeming to operate in a separate void avoiding any of the conflict. In extended scenes in part four as we see the extent of his empire while Yossarian is bemused by it all yet never seem to think of it as a potential escape route. Ultimately though Milo is sort of a lonely character. At one point he tells Yossarian “You’re my best friend” which considering all we’ve seen sounds unlikely.
The story also places an emphasis on the propaganda of war and how it used as much on a country’s own soldiers as elsewhere. The larger than life commander Colonel Cathcart – played with relish and gusto by Kyle Chandler- is the personification of patriotic America pushing the crews to more and more missions. Cathcart’s version of the war is endless heroism, duty and victory that doesn’t reflect the conditions we see during the missions. He’s a cheerleader in a manner that we often see from American politicians to this day where deluded fiction reshapes imperfect fact. His rhetoric does get through to some of the soldiers - there’s a scene in a brothel which improbably becomes a debate on American values. When Yossarian’s sabotages causes his crew’s plane to turn back during a raid, the Colonel shames them like school kids- and they don’t get the baked Alaska he has arranged- via Minderbinder of course- for everyone else. Another funny strand relates to a character improbably named Major Major whom Cathcart promotes to a Major because he though he already was one (!) and who then hides himself in an office making a model boat and asking for no visitors. These scenarios sound implausible yet the series is able to show just how chaotic things are even on the ground and how even the officers are so engaged in personal power struggles that they don’t have a full handle over what is going on.
Aficionados of the novel say that its richness is somewhat lost in telling the tale in chronological order and some people watching may bridle at the witty dialogue of the soldiers and ask whether this reflects the reality of the situation. Other reviewers have complained that even the main characters have no back story but I think that actually shows how in the theatre of war everyone is the same. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you are from you are in that situation and you have to deal with it. The one thing that did occur to me is that Yossarian’s predicament and attempts to avoid danger would surely be more common whereas here it is viewed as odd even amongst his colleagues who just get on with things.
The narrative, as in the book, declines to make things clear enough for us to see heroes or villains. There is murk everywhere and some of the characters we like perish while others we dislike survive- the day to day aspect of war is rarely about fairness. In this respect it’s a tough story that has few redemptive arcs or at times even a sense of justice. It finds both broad satire and stark horror side by side. This is one of those serials you need to re-watch several times to grasp all of its nuances but it is absorbing, amusing and sometimes shocking.