Heller was a bombardier in WWII stationed in Italy like his protagonist John “Yoyo” Yossarian, but even though he was inspired by his own experiences, Heller said he never came across a bad officer.
The same can’t be said in his novel Catch-22, now an ambitious and exciting new miniseries streaming from Sunday on Stan.
Produced and co-directed by George Clooney (who also has a minor on-screen role), Grant Heslov and Ellen Kuras, from a screenplay by Australian filmmakers Luke Davies (Candy) and David Michod (Animal Kingdom), the six-part series is laugh-out-loud funny, smart and captivating.
Only the first two episodes were made available for review, and both instalments went down very easily, eliciting full-throated guffaws as Yoyo (Christopher Abbott) flounders, desperately trying to get out of combat duty.
Yoyo is stuck — he’s not that keen on dying in a war that is practically won. As he says, dead men don’t care who wins anyway.
He signed up for the Air Corps with the idea the training takes the longest and the war might be over before then. He was wrong. So now he’s sitting at the front of B-25s and letting bombs rain down over Italy.
He’s ticking down his mission quota, but every time he gets close to an end, the goalposts are moved. When Colonel Cathart (Kyle Chandler) keeps raising the count, the frustrated Yoyo tries to get creative in getting out of the missions.
Cathart, a bloviating figure who can’t recognise the Vatican on a satellite map and lets a wily soldier talk him into a convoluted black market scam, is endemic of the officers in Catch-22. Hugh Laurie plays another in Major de Coverley whose only concerns seems to be his horseshoe game.
Yoyo’s relatable scepticism of the whole endeavour is emphasised through the pure absurdity of the base and of a particular military rule, the catch 22, that says any man willing to fly deadly missions is insane (and therefore able to be medically excused), but wanting to be excused means you have a sense of your own mortality and therefore are sane.
It’s bureaucracy at its most impossible.
As Yoyo, Abbott has found a character that combines farce, sensitivity and a frustrating almost-tragedy. Abbott has been around for a few years, notably with supporting roles in Girls, Whisky Tango Foxtrot, First Man and The Sinner.
Here, he proves his leading man status as a charismatic thesp who can be entrusted to carry a weighty project. Abbott is very, very watchable.
Heller’s book is biting, sharp and increasingly dark, but this adaptation, at least at first, is softer, the edges rounded off by playing up the comedic aspects. Whether it’ll have the same gravitas as its source material in its condemnation of bureaucracy and pointless rules remains an open question for the rest of the miniseries.
But it’s a question worth finding the answer to — and with five hours of screen time, there’s ample opportunity to explore how individuals get caught in the Venus flytrap of a large, unfeeling system designed to befuddle and exploit you.
With its expensive production values, excellent cast and wicked sense of humour, don’t be surprised if you end up gobbling up the whole series in one go.
Every episode of Catch-22 is available to stream on Stan from Saturday, May 18
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