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Hulu's 'Catch-22' is an apt warning for an America poised on the brink of war — again

Arriving in the midst of a new round of U.S. saber-rattling, this time with Iran, the series acts as a much-needed counterpoint.
Episode 101
George Clooney from a scene in "Catch-22."Philipe Antonello / Hulu

Everyone agrees that war is a terrible thing. Ask any politician, including the more than two dozen or so currently trying to run for president in 2020, and every last one of them will pay lip service to the bravery of “our young men and women in uniform.” And yet, since 2001, our country has been in a state of perpetual, never-ending war. Children who turn 18 this year have grown up in a world where the country was never not involved in some kind of engagement in Afghanistan or Iraq, or a vague hand wave to the Middle East. In such a reality, the only surprise about Hulu’s “Catch-22” remake is that it hasn’t come sooner.

The only surprise about Hulu’s “Catch-22” remake is that it hasn’t come sooner.

“Catch- 22,” which became available to stream on Friday, May 17, is a six-part love letter to Joseph Heller’s original novel that also pays tribute to the brilliant 1970 film version directed by Mike Nichols. Produced, partly directed and starring George Clooney in a supporting role, the project marks the actor’s first serious (noncameo) small-screen role since “ER,” the series that made him a household name. Clooney plays Lieutenant Scheisskopf (who eventually becomes a general), a key sign of the early madness. But he soon fades into the background to let the novel’s main figures take central stage, including Christopher Abbot as John “Yo-Yo” Yossarian, the pilot who finds himself caught in the proverbial “Catch-22” of the title, and all the certifiably strange soldiers he serves alongside.

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Satire is not always an easy thing to bring to the small screen, as it requires everyone involved to play the material utterly straight while also leaning into the absurd. Good political satire has been particularly hard to find recently due to the real-life and not at all funny surrealism of the Trump administration. So does a story written all the way back in 1961 hold up in this modern era? In this case, yes. Clooney and fellow directors Grant Heslov and Ellen Kuras have managed to capture a sort of period piece of timeless insanity.

The novel was set during World War II, in what Heller calls “The Mediterranean Theater,” an obscure corner west of Italy that was not very important but was bombed anyway. Considering that there have been many decades and several wars since, updating the story might have seemed tempting. But Clooney and company don’t take the bait. Instead they stay right in the middle of the fight everyone insists was the last “good” war, which only heightens the story’s strengths. (It also allows the soundtrack to punctuate the proceedings with some wonderfully ironic big band songs of the period.) Clooney and Co. also take good advantage of the miniseries length, giving many of the characters, including Yo-Yo’s flying buddies Nately (Austin Stowell) and Clevinger (Pico Alexander) far more screen time and a far more sympathetic edit than they were provided in the 1970 film.

All that being said, the series isn’t always quite able to keep up with the funny business. Presumably in an attempt to prove it can compete with Amazon for big-budget war re-enactments, Hulu has made Yo-Yo’s never-ending bombing runs extremely realistic. As an anti-war series, this is intensely effective, with the series sometimes feel like it’s dropping in and out of horror movie territory. But this realism can also sometimes drown out the ludicrousness of the bigger picture, as ridiculous elements are overridden by the moments of terror.

Also, not every actor here has the comedic timing to make the script work. Clooney himself is great; one gets the sense he fell out of a Cohen brothers movie and landed feet first on the Hulu lot. Most of the upper level officers are also fantastic, including Kyle Chandler as the evil Colonel Cathcart whom Yo-Yo reports to, and Hugh Laurie as Major de Coverley, who blessedly turns up to remind everyone his career actually started with this sort of comedy. But there are a few scenes, including the crucial one where the entire concept of the Catch-22 is explained, where the actors feel outmatched by the script and its period-appropriate, Marx Brothers ambitions.

This is not to say the series isn’t worth watching. After all, those moments of terror in war are punctuated by long stretches of boredom, and the show luxuriates in the juxtaposition of long days at the beach between moments of chaos. Arriving in the midst of a new round of American saber-rattling, this time with Iran, the series acts as a much-needed counterpoint. It’s reminder that the last thing this country needs is a Trump Catch-22.