‘Catch-22’ is reminder that the Greatest Generation also had its cynics | TribLIVE.com

‘Catch-22’ is reminder that the Greatest Generation also had its cynics

The Washington Post
Philippe Antonello, Hulu
Christopher Abbott plays John Yossarian in Hulu’s adaptation of Joseph Heller’s novel “Catch-22.”

There were once 16 million Americans who fought and survived World War II; this year, the number of those veterans who are still alive will dip below 400,000; in five years, fewer than 100,000 will be left.

What remains, besides history books and memorial sites, is an extraordinary culture trove centered on the American experience of the war — novels, songs, movies, musicals, TV shows, documentaries — and the tender gratitude that grew into an agreed-upon nickname, the Greatest Generation.

What gets lost in all the solemnity is a recognition that the human condition is a complex state of being. World War II is full of stories of doubt, despair and many other things that don’t look like honor or courage.

That’s part of the reason Hulu’s enjoyable and surprisingly poignant six-episode adaptation of Joseph Heller’s novel “Catch-22” (streaming Friday) is such a refreshing find: It’s nice to be reminded that, along with their heroism, the World War II generation possessed a healthy dose of cynicism, a distrust of power, a heightened sense of mischief, an insatiable horniness and a willingness, at times, to subvert the system to one’s benefit.

All of this was and still is personified in one John Yossarian (Christopher Abbott), a B-25 bombardier in the U.S. Army Air Forces who gives voice to the outrage of war — that he never sees or knows the people he’s killing in the Italian countryside thousands of feet below him. Underlying this senselessness is Yossarian’s cowardice: Isn’t it normal to be afraid to die? Aren’t courage and valor rather abstract concepts, designed to mask anxiety and fear?

Modern classic

“Catch-22” was first published in 1961 and caught on with the nascent peace movement, hailed as a modern classic, and then assigned to high school and college students, who consider most reading assignments an infliction and therefore might have missed Heller’s finer points of satire.

Hulu’s version — written and created by Luke Davies and David Michôd and shepherded by executive producer George Clooney and others — strips “Catch-22” down to its essential brilliance and then builds it back up into a sweeping, beautifully filmed, humorous yet tragic tale of a young man forever changed by war.

Abbott excels at portraying Yossarian’s contrarian insouciance, beginning at a California training camp where he is having an affair with the wife (Julie Ann Emery) of his ill-tempered, obsessive-compulsive training commander, Col. Scheisskopf (Clooney). Counting on the war being over before he can be assigned, Yossarian instead quickly finds himself in combat, riding in the claustrophobic glass-enclosed nose of a B-25 to line up targets while flak explodes all around him and the risk of death is high.

Back at his base on the small Mediterranean island of Pianosa, Yossarian begs the infirmary’s physician, Doc Daneeka (Grant Heslov), to declare him mentally unfit for combat.

Daneeka says he can’t because it’s a classic Catch-22: “Anybody who wants to get out of combat duty isn’t really crazy. Catch-22 specifies that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of danger — real and immediate — is the process of a rational mind.”

“That’s some catch, that Catch-22,” Yossarian says.

“It’s the best there is,” Daneeka replies.

Many of those lives are cut short. As Yossarian desperately tries to reach his mission quota, it keeps being raised by the hard-nosed Col. Cathcart (“Friday Night Lights’s” Kyle Chandler, who seems to have a grand time snacking on scenery), dashing his hopes of going home. As his friends keep dying around him, Yossarian begins to panic. His sanity finally comes in for legitimate doubt and the lasting themes in “Catch-22” are affirmed: There is very little to celebrate about having gone to war.

Categories: AandE | Movies TV
TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.