Review: Hulu’s Catch-22 Lyrically Depicts a War’s Inanities and Horrors

Hulu’s adaptation of Joseph Heller’s novel invites our laughter, contemplation, and shock in equal measure.

Photo: Hulu

Immediately following the opening credits of the first episode of Catch-22, Hulu’s adaptation of Joseph Heller’s satirical novel set during World War II, Lieutenant Scheisskopf (George Clooney) berates a pack of Air Force cadets for their imperfect marching form. As he hurls insults at them, a series of close-ups introduces some of the young men, one by one, as their names are displayed on screen. By the end of the six-episode miniseries, many of them will be dead, having been shot out of the sky or chopped to shreds by propellers. But for now, they must reckon with the fact that, in the process of marching, they’re unacceptably swinging their wrists more than four inches away from their thighs.

Following their training with Scheisskopf, bombardier John Yossarian (Christopher Abbott) and his fellow servicemen are deployed to the base on the island of Pianosa, Italy, to complete 25 missions before they can be discharged. But the bumbling Colonel Cathcart (Kyle Chandler) and Lieutenant Colonel Korn (Kevin J. O’Connor) keep arbitrarily raising the mission requirement, all the way to 55, steadily increasing the body count as a result.

The expanding barrier to Yossarian’s discharge leads him to recognize that the gravest threat to his life isn’t enemy fire, but the bureaucratic machine that repeatedly exposes him to it. At one point, in reference to the map that indicates his unit’s bombing route, Yossarian says to a superior, “That’s what it’s come down to for us. We’re afraid of a line on a map. Do you know what that feels like? To be afraid of a piece of string?” It’s a haunting, lucid bit of dialogue. String, red tape, it’s all the same: forces that doom more soldiers than they save.

Catch-22 rarely wastes a second as it cuts away from scenes mid-conversation or mid-word, zigzagging between satirical depictions of war’s inanity—best exemplified by the ineptitude of those in upper command—and sublime visions of its horror. The series invites our laughter, contemplation, and shock in equal measure. Often, mess officer turned war profiteer Milo Minderbinder (Daniel David Stewart) elicits all three. He spends much time off screen, gallivanting around the Mediterranean and Middle East theater with his miniature army of Italian boy-laborers, building up his international trade “syndicate” by buying and selling eggs, goats, and other goods. The scenes in which he does show up can barely contain the blistering energy with which he explains his supply-and-demand magic tricks.

In one episode of the miniseries, Yossarian joins Minderbinder on one of his journeys to court world leaders and economic bigwigs, offering viewers a more leisurely look into the extent of the latter’s operation and the single-mindedness of his aspirations. It turns out that Minderbinder isn’t just some lunatic peddling tomatoes and olive oil; he’s become, among other things, the mayor of Palermo, Sicily, thanks to his lucrative shuffling-around of scotch. As Minderbinder’s success makes clear, the only people who benefit from war are those like him: the vultures who pick at the bones that bloodshed exposes.

Cathcart and Korn’s incompetence is as layered as Minderbinder’s ambition. After they mistake the rank of one recruit (Lewis Pullman)—his legal name is Major Major Major, so they think he’s a major—they promote him in order to save themselves the work of revoking the access to higher-up meetings that the mix-up has granted him. In the moment, the exchange is absurdly comical; Chandler sells Cathcart’s doltishness with his furrowed brow alone. But Major’s promotion ultimately proves to be less funny than disquieting: He’s spared from combat for no reason other than his name and the indolence of his commanders. For the rest of the series, his continued survival serves as a symbol of war’s ultimate irrationality.

While Major hides out in his cushy office, Yossarian routinely embarks on bombing missions—beautifully depicted scenes that show balletically synchronized planes flying over Italian hills. Death seems all but assured as flak explodes in the air around the American planes and Yossarian centers churches and bridges in the crosshairs of his bombsight. But gradually, these sequences begin to blur together, diminishing both their visual splendor and the palpable sense of danger they seek to evoke. They become almost mundane, conveying how war can over time have a numbing effect. Yossarian flies, destroys something far below, narrowly evades death, and files a form to add the completed mission to his tally. But the tally never grows great enough to send Yossarian home. Neither valor nor paperwork will save him from the war’s insatiable appetite for havoc.

The most riveting sequence of the series comes at its halfway point, as Yossarian and his friends are relaxing at the beach, just off-shore. A friendly plane flying low over the water accidentally rams one of the boyish soldiers at full speed, killing him. The young pilot goes into shock, steering his jet straight up into the sky, his windshield splattered with blood and the musical score making a rare appearance on the soundtrack. At the height of his climb, the pilot turns off the jet’s ignition, leading to a strikingly composed shot: From the beach, we see the plane plummeting down the middle of the frame, bathing-suited witnesses standing at either side of its descending form like a sea parted. The moment expresses the calamitous stakes that the opening parade-marching sequence belied. Because what has all this been—the flying, the missions, the paperwork, the war—if not an extraordinary act of self-destruction?

 Cast: Christopher Abbott, Kyle Chandler, George Clooney, Rafi Gavron, Giancarlo Giannini, Gerran Howell, Hugh Laurie, Graham Patrick Martin, Kevin J. O'Connor, Daniel David Stewart, Tessa Ferrer, Jay Paulson, Jon Rudnitsky, Julie Ann Emery, Pico Alexander, Miranda Hennessy, Grant Heslov, Lewis Pullman, Martin Delaney  Network: Hulu  Buy: Amazon, Soundtrack, Book

Niv M. Sultan

Niv M. Sultan is a writer based in New York. His writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Drift, Public Books, and other publications.

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