Turn the sound off, and Hulu’s “Catch-22” looks like a rousing historical war drama in the vein of “Band of Brothers.” It sports beautiful locations, realistic war scenes and a cast of handsome actors. There’s even Kyle Chandler, the coach from “Friday Night Lights,” as the commanding officer giving the B-17 crewmen their missions.
But turn the sound up and listen to what the characters are saying, and “Catch-22” becomes completely different. Joseph Heller’s cynically funny 1961 novel is an anti-war classic in which the bureaucracy and idiocy of the U.S. military is nearly as dangerous to soldiers as the enemy itself.
“Catch-22,” a miniseries adaptation that dropped all six of its episodes last Friday, looks a little prettier than it should, with some glorious location shots in Italy. It also has a sadder, more elegiac tone than either the novel or Mike Nichols’ 1970 film, which made explicit parallels to the war in Vietnam. But it has the same cynical, angry heart as Heller’s novel.
Christopher Abbott plays Yossarian, a B-17 pilot who has had enough of the dangerous bombing runs he’s required to go on. The missions are so harrowing that crews are only required to go on 25 of them in their careers. But the colonel played by Chandler, filled with equal parts rage and rah-rah patriotism, keeps upping the number from 30, to 35, to 40. Basically, Yossarian realizes, he’s going to be dropping bombs until he gets killed.
The heart of “Catch-22” is Yossarian’s occasionally funny, increasingly desperate schemes to get out of missions. In his quest, he runs up against the bureaucratic stupidity of the military. The “Catch-22” of the title, for example, involves whether pilots are mentally fit to fly. If they are mentally unfit, a doctor (Grant Heslov, who also directed two episodes) explains, they shouldn’t be allowed to fly. But if they claim to be mentally unfit, they will be forced to fly anyway, because only a mentally fit person would not want to fly on a bombing run.
“Catch-22” is full of such perfectly illogical conversations that seem more like an “Abbott & Costello” routine than a military code of conduct. The anti-authoritarian streak in the show isn’t exactly subtle, especially when George Clooney (who also produced and directed two episodes) appears as a teeth-gnashing buffoon of a commanding officer.
In “Catch-22,” patriotism is a sucker’s game, designed to convince young American men to willingly volunteer for suicide missions, and then sign up again if they survive. The only character who seems to have figured out the game is the company cook, Milo (Daniel David Stewart), who makes a fortune running black-market goods in and out of the war zone — and, sometimes, back and forth between German and U.S. forces. Unchecked global capitalism turns out to be the real American way.
Also on streaming: The best news I’ve heard about the next, as yet untitled James Bond movie is that Phoebe Waller-Bridge has been hired on as one of the writers. Waller-Bridge created the addictive “Killing Eve” and also stars in her own show “Fleabag.” The second (and, Waller-Bridge insists, final season) of “Fleabag” was released last Friday on Amazon Prime and is not to be missed.
“What/If” looks like an erotic thriller from the 1990s that has somehow surfaced in 2019. It stars Renee Zellweger as a mysterious rich woman who makes an offer to two struggling newlyweds that they can’t (but probably should) refuse. It premieres this Friday on Netflix.
Fans of live theater should check out the streaming service BroadwayHD, which brings theater productions from around the world to subscribers. Last week, the service premiered a new broadcast of “42nd Street” live from London’s West End. Director Ross MacGibbon worked closely with the late Mark Bramble — who co-wrote the book for the original 1981 Broadway production — in creating and editing this version with broadcast audiences in mind.