What’s the Catch?

George Clooney’s ‘Catch-22’ Miniseries is Flat, Dull, and Pointless

When Joseph Heller published Catch-22 in 1961, the end of World War II was closer in time than 9-11 is to us now. The novel had immediacy and urgency. WWII, in our imagination, was a titanic struggle against the greatest evil in human history. But Heller dared suggest that even defeating Hitler was a pointless existential task. The endlessly-revered U.S. Military, he said, was just another money-grubbing bureaucracy. Shocking!

But it’s a lot less shocking to say that now, with WWII 80 years in the rearview, and nearly everyone who fought in it dead. The George Clooney-produced six-hour-long Catch-22 miniseries, which feels like 15 hours, is now flopping around like a dead fish on Hulu. It’s hard to do an elegy for the Greatest Generation after Band Of Brothers and Saving Private Ryan and Heartbreak Ridge and The Sands of Iwo Jima. Anti-war satires hold no surprises when we’ve all seen M.A.S.H., Full Metal Jacket, and Three Kings. So how are we supposed to drop our jaws at Clooney’s handsome-looking but ultimately pointless goody-two-shoes book report?

We live in incredibly self-serious times, sort of the opposite of the climate in which Heller wrote Catch-22. His book had the early buzz of the counterculture, which thoroughly informed Mike Nichols’ weird film adaptation of the book in 1970. But that movie was at least recognizable as a comedy, with a cast that included Bob Newhart, Buck Henry, and Charles Grodin. Alan Arkin played Yossarian with a kind of manic tsuris. Just looking at him gives you the jitters.

 

Catch-22: The Sexy Men Of War

The TV adaptation of Catch-22, on the other hand, stars Christopher Abbott, a handsome gentleman to be sure, but no comic genius. He plays Yossarian with an undefinable East Coast accent. When he emotes, you can definitely see him acting. The actors who play his fellow “Merry Band” members are largely nondescript, and equally handsome. The miniseries features a lot of scenes of them taking outdoor showers under the pleasant Mediterranean sun, as though they were prepping for a dance number in Mamma Mia Here We Go Again instead of a bombing raid on German fortifications in Italy.

Clooney himself seems to understand the source material best. He directs the horrifying final flight sequence in the final episode. In the supporting role of General Schiesskopf, he fumes and twitches in full O Brother, Where Art Thou? mode. Kyle Chandler plays the evil Colonel Cathcart as a kind of Coach Taylor from hell. And it’s hard to not like Daniel David Stewart as Milo Minderbinder, a mess-hall cook who parlays his access to luxury goods into full-blown corporate capitalism.

Stewart still doesn’t give Milo the same wacky treatment that Jon Voight did in the 1970 movie. But at least he people who made the miniseries appear to understand that his character’s meant to be satirical. The rest of this show feels very Masterpiece-like, with adaptation flop-sweat leaking off every scene. We watch it dutifully, because it’s supposed to be important.

Instead, it just feels dated, like so many literary adaptations. Dickens was funny…in his time, and maybe on the page. E.M. Forster’s social satire surely once had some bite, but not on PBS. War is hell, even when chasing Hitler’s minions to the sea? That message has about as much social urgency as The Red Badge Of Courage.

So why adapt Catch-22 now, when the U.S. is at relative peace and World War II is a distant memory? If it’s meant to be a warning shot across the bow, no one is paying attention. Or maybe Catch-22 is just something that got the green light because everything gets the green light nowadays. The boring Michael B. Jordan Fahrenheit 451 HBO movie shows that some TV executives have English degrees. The Catch-22 miniseries has a similar genesis. While the world burns, we can say we tastefully adapted the classics. Even the satirical ones.

Neal Pollack

Book and Film Globe Editor in Chief Neal Pollack is the author of ten semi-bestselling books of fiction and nonfiction, including the memoirs Alternadad and Stretch, the novels Repeat and Downward-Facing Death, and the cult classic The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. He's written articles and humor for every English-language publication except The New Yorker. Neal lives in Austin, Texas, and is a three-time Jeopardy! champion.

7 thoughts on “What’s the Catch?

  • May 27, 2019 at 4:03 pm
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    You obviously do not know what you are talking about sir!

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  • May 28, 2019 at 12:48 pm
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    Forget about the book. This is a brilliant series. See it for yourself.

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  • May 29, 2019 at 4:04 pm
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    “E.M. Forster’s social satire surely once had some bite, but not on PBS”: I concur that you do not know what you’re talking about, whether in relation to Forster, Dickens or Heller. For the record, none of Forster’s novels or stories have ever been adapted for PBS – and the implied relevance to Catch-22 or its TV adaptation is (let’s just say) mystifying.

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    • May 29, 2019 at 4:10 pm
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      The recent adaptation of Howard’s End aired on Amazon Prime in the U.S. but might as well have been a Masterpiece production. It was handsome and well-acted, but not even close to the Merchant-Ivory version. My point is that social satire is often pinned to the time in which the work appears. Any attempts at making a satirical work “relevant” to the present day usually fall flat. That’s why Gulliver’s Travels, at best, feels like an amusing cartoon these days, and why even the best Dickens adaptations play like chamber music. There are rare exceptions, like Ianucci’s The Death Of Stalin, but that was an original script that happened to be set in the past, and therefore had a modern sensibility.

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  • June 3, 2019 at 4:52 am
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    Howards End with apostrophe in a post which responds to ClaireM’s conjecture about your knowledge of Forster et al. … Hmmm, unintentional humour? 😉

    Reply

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