What To Watch This Week: Catch-22

What To Watch This Week: Catch-22

Joseph Heller’s seminal 1961 novel is often credited with being one of the 21st-century’s greatest works. Now, it’s been turned into a miniseries by George Clooney. Exploring war and the levels of insanity that comes with it, Catch-22 follows a squadron of young American flyers, who arrive at the tail-end of WWII to discover that bureaucracy is far more deadly than the enemy…

Based On Joseph Heller’s Masterpiece

Based on the 1961 satirical novel of the same name, Catch-22 is the story of incomparable artful dodger Captain John “Yo-Yo” Yossarian, a US Air Force bombardier in WWII who is furious because thousands of people he has never met are trying to kill him.

But his real problem is not the enemy, but rather his own army which keeps increasing the number of missions the men must fly to complete their military service. Yet if Yossarian makes any attempt to avoid his assignments, he’ll be in violation of ‘Catch-22’, a sinister bureaucratic rule which specifies that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers which are real and immediate is the process of a rational mind; a man is considered insane if he willingly continues to fly dangerous combat missions, but a request to be removed from duty is evidence of sanity and therefore makes him ineligible to be dismissed from combat.


Yossarian’s frantic obsession every time he goes up on a mission is “to come down alive”. His odds of success at such a simple aim keep getting worse because Colonel Cathcart keeps raising the number of flights that must be completed. More than the retreating Germans, the real enemy for Yossarian and his rag-tag brothers-in-arms is the bureaucracy of the military, which inverts logic at every turn.

George Clooney Stars In, Directed And Produced The Series

It’s hard to believe, but Catch-22 is Clooney’s first TV role since ER ended in 2009. Here, Oscar winner Clooney also serves as executive producer of the six-episode series and directs two himself. Also, on producing, acting and directing duties is Clooney’s long-term collaborator Grant Heslov, who also co-produced The Men Who Stare At Goats, The Ides of March and Argo, for which he won an Academy Award. Meanwhile, Ellen Kuras, the cinematographer behind Blow and Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, directs the remaining two episodes to startling effect.

For Us, It’s All About Christopher Abbott

Protagonist Yossarian is played by Christopher Abbott, who is best known for his recurring role as Marnie’s on/off boyfriend Charlie in Girls. He has also appeared in Netflix series The Sinner and last year’s Ryan Gosling-starring First Man. Abbott plays Yossarian with restraint as we witness his slow descent into madness. This is demonstrated best as Yossarian experiences his first death –his reaction is an almost imperceptible twitch. We were disappointed he hadn’t been in more shows following his standout role in Girls – as per his former co-star Adam Driver. Abbott’s performance in this miniseries should set that right.

Along the way, Yossarian’s adversaries include Clooney’s General Scheisskopf, who he plays with wide-eyed mania, akin to his role in the Coen Brothers’ Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?. An incompetent training commander – whose name in German translates to ‘s***head’ – Scheisskopf has it in for Yossarian and his closest comrade Clevinger (played by Pico Alexander). Scheisskopf's defining characteristic is his strange obsession with elaborate military parades – something Clevinger questions to his and Yossarian’s detriment. Along the way, Yossarian ends up having an affair with Scheisskopf’s wife (Julie Ann Emery). Yes, there’s attraction there, but it’s clear their relationship is bolstered by a mutual hatred of Mrs Schiesskopf’s husband.

Elsewhere, executive officer of the squadron Major de Coverley (Hugh Laurie, Blackadder, House)  is admired and feared by the men. A man of mystery – nobody knows his first name and no-one is quite sure what his duties are within the bomber squadron – he spends his time pitching horseshoes and renting apartments for soldiers.

Out on the island of Pianosa, off the west coast of Italy, Yossarian and his compatriots encounter their trickiest foe yet: the bumbling Colonel Cathcart (Kyle Chandler, Bloodline, Wolf of Wall Street, Manchester by the Sea). A squadron fly on track for a promotion, it is he who orders to men to undertake a ever-growing number of missions over the Italian countryside, diminishing their chances of returning home at every turn.

War Is Explored In A Fascinating Way

Heller’s sprawling novel was never going to be a natural fit for a feature-length film – or at least one that would do the plot justice. Here, the book is given six episodes to explore its central themes and eek out the events which lead to Yossarian’s diminished state of mind. Like the novel, viewers are thrown straight into the action and we’re given little backstory for the main characters. However, in this interpretation events are presented in a chronological order. While this makes for a more straightforward retelling for audiences, much of the back and forth which reenforces the farce of war in the book is absent here. What we’re left with is a stark, rather than satirical, look at WWII via claustrophobic set pieces in the cockpit, gory deaths and the unreasonable demands of the US military.

Throughout, a sepia tone adds a sense of nostalgia and the scenes are beautifully shot. However, the jewelled tones of the Mediterranean and winding streets of Rome – the backdrop for the series’ most harrowing scene – do nothing to detract from the terrors of war. Even as a buoyant big band soundtrack saturates the series, Catch-22 manages to highlight the hypocrisy at the centre of these missions. The heart of Heller’s novel was always anti-war – this series captures that perfectly.

Catch-22 episode one is available to watch on Channel4.com now. Subsequent episodes will be shown on Thursdays at 9pm on Channel 4.

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