For the new six-part adaptation of “Catch-22,” changes in tone and structure from Joseph Heller’s 1961 classic have been made. Of course. What works on the page — especially when it comes to disdain, scathing satire, and a fragmented narrative — doesn’t always work on screen. The brilliant movie version of Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” a 1962 novel whose take on sanity and the system resonates with that of “Catch-22,” ultimately was not entirely loyal to the book, and neither is Hulu’s “Catch-22.”
But the alterations in “Catch-22” have been made wisely by the talent behind this production, including executive producer George Clooney (who directed two episodes and plays a supporting role), writers Luke Davies and David Michod, and cinematographer Martin Ruhe. Heller’s story of men and war, and depersonalization and bureaucracy, works surprisingly well as a straight-ahead miniseries, with enough time to do justice to both its terror in the air, in tin-can-like planes, and its cleverly absurdist humor. It’s a fine piece of work that stands solidly on its own as a collection of intertwined set pieces that build chronologically to an emotionally devastating climax.
I can’t say this “Catch-22,” available in its entirety Friday, has anything new to say to our era; thanks to books like the one it’s based on and movies and series like “M*A*S*H,” we understand the paradoxes of military service and the role of humor during tragedy. But as a period piece with universal refrains, it has a lot going for it.
The miniseries also makes it clear that Christopher Abbott, whose star has been rising since his seasons on “Girls,” is a leading actor worthy of notice. He plays John “Yoyo” Yossarian, the bombardier at the heart of the story, who wants to escape the war and the military spider’s web that keeps him there. The more he tries to get out, as the logic of the story goes, the more missions his sputtering, angry commanding officer, Colonel Cathcart (Kyle Chandler), forces Yossarian to finish. Abbott makes Yossarian into a multidimensional character who is afraid to die, but not a coward, and who is a rabid cynic but also, at bottom, humane, a quality that helps make him bearable as the lead. He looks like an everyman World War II soldier in a white T-shirt, and the camera often frames him as a kind of Marlon Brando figure to add to that sense of male iconography; but by the end of the story, as Abbott’s performance peaks, he’s flesh and blood.
Abbott’s rich turn is important, since most of the characters who surround him, including black marketer and war profiteer Milo Minderbinder (Daniel David Stewart), are nearly cartoons. For the most part, that works, although Hugh Laurie is entirely wasted as the vain and mysterious Major de Coverley, a man accustomed to the finer things.
The screenwriters have taken out some of the more crudely sexist bits from the book, whose gender politics are, shall we say, not particularly progressive. Heller had plenty new to say about war and the real enemies, who are not necessarily those we’re fighting — but not about women. The miniseries compensates by laughing openly at the fickleness of men with their dukes up and their swollen egos on the line, particularly Chandler’s Cathcart and Clooney’s Lieutenant Scheisskopf, who scream their tonsils out directing military parades as if their masculinity depended on it. Late in the story, after Yossarian is injured, his testicles — and whether or not he has lost them — become a funny metaphor, not least of all as Scheisskopf decides that he needs to see for himself. There are many similarly funny scenes along the way, including the man named Major Major Major getting promoted to major because of his name, but the miniseries doesn’t lean as heavily on wordy sketch comedy as much as the book. The pathos ultimately dominates the humor.
The look of the miniseries is particularly effective, as it plays the idyllic Italian island where the men are stationed — where they swim and frolic between missions like the boys in a homoerotic Eakins painting — against the acutely masculine idiocy of the American leadership and the stress of the bombing missions. It’s a tension-and-release approach that serves the story well, as it propels it forward both on the ground and in the air.
Starring: Christopher Abbott, George Clooney, Kyle Chandler, Hugh Laurie, Graham Patrick Martin, Daniel David Stewart. On: Hulu, all six episodes available FridayMatthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.