“Catch-22”: Straighten Up and Fly Right

Milo: If I could take one of the planes this afternoon, I’d like to get this material over to Alexandria. There’s huge cotton crop this year.
Colonel Cathcart: Cotton?
Milo: Yes, sir. Cotton is a particularly liquid commodity.
Colonel Cathcart: How much?
Milo: We’ll trade for it, sir.
Colonel Cathcart: With what?
Milo: Silk! 4,000 yards of silk.
Colonel Cathcart: How in the world did you get ahold of so much silk?
Yossarian: [in plane] WHERE THE HELL’S MY PARACHUTE?

–Catch-22, 1970 film version

My sophomore year in college, a young man who was much smarter than me gave me two books: a collection of John Keats’ poems, which I read and liked; and Catch-22, which I wasn’t sure if I liked because I didn’t read it.

“Oh, you have Catch-22,” every other Harvard student who looked at my bookshelf said. “Did you like it?”

“I…haven’t read it.”

“Oh, you should read it! It’s really good. It’s important.”

I assured them all that I would read it eventually, even though I had no intention of doing so. I already had a ridiculously tall pile of reading for my English classes, very little of which I understood. I just didn’t have time to read a book for fun, much less an enormous book. I mean, have you looked at a copy of Catch-22? It’s HUGE. It’s like a Duplo block of literature. Fortunately, my copy of it was also very light, so I held onto it. After all, having it on my bookshelf made me look smart, even if my performance in my classes did the opposite.

Then, my senior year, I saw a play version of Catch-22 in the Loeb Ex Theater. God, I loved the Loeb Ex Theater — I saw some of the weirdest, most random, and most wonderful theater ever in that black box of a space. Every single show stayed with me afterward, and this production has stayed with me for more than two decades. Seating areas were fitted into the theater’s four corners, while four stages with sharply angled floors (the perfect metaphor for the story’s skewed perspective) stood against the walls. What I remember most is watching a guy who also worked at the Crimson — one of those quiet, super professional, super driven kids — deliver one of the funniest performances I’d ever seen. Who would’ve guessed he was hilarious? Oh, that show. I couldn’t stop laughing. Then I couldn’t stop crying.

So I went back to my room and finally read Catch-22, and it was fantastic. Even I, a terrible English major (though maybe not as terrible as John Mulaney), could tell that.

In any case, I take Catch-22 pretty seriously now after our long and weird history together. When I saw Hulu was making a miniseries of it, I almost fell off the couch. Especially when I saw some of the people involved. George Clooney! Hugh Laurie! That dude from Friday Night Lights and Game Night! I. Couldn’t. WAIT.

Then I watched the first episode, and the disappointment started nagging me before the credits. Sure, it had some funny moments; but the way most of the actors were delivering their lines…it’s almost as if they forgot it they were in a satire.

“They didn’t forget it was a satire,” Raf chided me. “Clooney’s tight with Soderbergh, and the 1970 version of Catch-22 is one of his favorite films. Maybe they just decided to tone down that element.”

That mystifies me. How could anyone want to drop the satire from a story that gained popularity and critical acclaim because it satirized the nearly un-satirizable? I guess one could make the argument that the world today is so damn depressing and awful that satirizing it feels pointless, and that we need stories with more gravitas because they shouldn’t be ridiculous when things are this ridiculously bad.

But I think this story needs that contrast. Otherwise, it’s too heavy, even with its sprightly 1940s big-band music, its gorgeous sepia-toned shots of Italy, and its sparkling footage of bronzed young men swimming in the ocean. (Let’s be blunt: If you like looking at handsome young white dudes in bathing suits, playing in the ocean as if they’re set in a 1940s Abercrombie and Fitch ad, you’ll like a lot of this show.)

HELLO, NURSE. (Source: Hulu and IndieWire)

Take Hulu’s Yossarian. Instead of the embittered voice of reason, he’s now a big complainer, angrily demanding to get out of his missions and annoyed at everyone who doesn’t see things his way. Sure, he cares about the other guys, but not nearly as much as he cares about himself. He’s hot but exhausting. And the more he fumes over his ever-increasing missions, the more the frustration builds, like noise from a dripping sink — until the casualties start building, adding injury to insult.

Disclosure: It’s hard for me to not compare this show to the 1970 movie, which is fantastic. If you haven’t seen it, make time for it. The cast is like a Who’s Who of great actors: Alan Arkin, Anthony Perkins, Martin Sheen, even Art Garfunkel (!). Plus, during the filming (supposedly, according to Raf), Orson Welles kept getting pissed off at Austin Pendleton for stealing their scenes together. How many films can boast that?

The 1970 Catch-22 trailer. No Orson Welles or Austin Pendleton, alas.

Look, there are things I really, really liked about the Hulu series. For one, it treats women like people, not dopey sex objects or punchlines. In my early teen years, I watched M*A*S*H (both the movie and the TV show) obsessively, but felt so uncomfortable with how women were portrayed in them. As much as I liked the movie, I felt the same watching the 1970 Catch-22. And I’m grateful the miniseries didn’t go down that path. Nately’s relationship with his gorgeous prostitute fiancee unfolds lovingly, in slow-motion flashbacks with them laughing and dancing as his awestruck voice-over explains why he loves her. The nurse who lets Yossarian hide at the hospital clearly finds him amusing, but refuses to compromise her professionalism when he begs to stay out of combat for longer; likewise, he never treats her as a sexual object. And Aarfy…oh my God, that scene in Italy is almost traumatizing to watch.

But utimately, Hulu’s “Catch-22” reminded me of my high school English class’s A Modest Proposal assignment. Everyone had to design their own modest proposal in the style of Jonathan Swift’s story and present it to the class. After nearly an hour of presentations, our teacher — bemused but disappointed — announced that all but one of us had missed the point (and no, it wasn’t me). He pointed out that our presentations about, for example, more violent ways to punish child molesters had been interesting and even entertaining (trust me, some of them were); but none of them displayed Swift’s dark wit. None of the solutions to our problems involved consuming the very things we were trying to protect. They were just more severe versions of existing punishments.

I think the same goes for Hulu’s “Catch-22” miniseries. It’s lovely to look at, with some solid performances, a few decent laughs, and not-terrible roles for women. But it spends its limited time with the audience telling a story that several other movies and TV shows have already told: that war can feel like enormous pinchers tightening around your head with slow and methodical madness. And while that’s a story worth telling, it seems a shame to cut off a unicorn’s horn just to make another horse.

Sorry, kids watching the miniseries in the hope of escaping the giant Duplo block of a book. Maybe give the book a try? You might enjoy it a lot more. At the very least, owning it will make you look smart.

Copyright 2019 – 2020, Sarah A. Ruiz & What the Kids Were Watching/Quail School Media. All rights reserved.