The fatal flaw of George Clooney’s Catch-22

Episode 102

Christopher Abbott as Yossarian prepares to fly yet another mission.

Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 is a classic American novel about World War II, bureaucracy, the illogic underpinning our social charades, and the courageous use of cowardice to do the one thing that really matters: survive. It is long, dense, and nonlinear, with a large cast of characters who represent Heller’s satires of capitalism, incompetence, American exceptionalism, and more.

Previous attempts to translate Catch-22 in motion pictures proved difficult. Mike Nichols’s 1971 film fell flat before critics and audiences, though Heller himself praised it. A 1973 TV series fizzled before it got off the ground. Now, Hulu and George Clooney have produced a six-part miniseries and most reviews contend that Heller’s epic novel has finally been given the treatment it deserves.

On the surface, there’s a lot about this adaptation that works. The actors do a generally fine job of recreating Heller’s counter-logical dialogue, as in the scene where lead protagonist Yossarian is informed he can only visit Major Major in his office when Major Major is out of his office. Everyone looks right for their part, especially Clooney’s deranged Lieutenant Scheisskopf. The scenery, from flak-filled skies to the dirty streets of wartime Rome, all looks great. Many of the book’s most enduring scenes are faithfully depicted, including Yossarian’s impassioned monologue about a bungling, careless God.

Yet the spirit of this series is different from its source material. Nichols’s film does a better job capturing the novel’s frenetic energy, subversion, and maddening hopelessness. Clooney’s Catch-22 tries too hard to make sense of the novel’s capricious cruelty.

catch22 clooney

George Clooney’s Lieutenant Scheisskopf chews out Yossarian and Pico Alexander’s Clevinger.

Supporting characters like Clevinger, Orr, and Dunbar are hardly given enough screen time to distinguish themselves from one another. McWatt’s mustache distinguishes him, but when he kills Kid Sampson it is neither as terrifying nor as comical as it is in the novel – it’s just sad, as is much of the series. Scenes are often genuine downers, so that those expecting Heller’s furious interpretation of such tragedies will instead receive somber music and reflective moments.

The biggest problem, though, is with Yossarian. Christopher Abbott is a fine actor but his Yossarian is played too straight, taking most of his abuse with a morose resignation that contrasts with the animated indignation displayed in the novel. Even worse, the series’ writers make Yossarian responsible for much of the carnage that afflicts his friends, including the deaths of Mudd, Nately, and Snowden.

In an early scene, Yossarian sends the newly arrived Mudd to the wrong tent for check-in, and Mudd is immediately sent on a mission that gets him killed. Yossarian realizes his mistake, but only lazily calls out a correction when Mudd is already out of earshot. By turning around during a bombing raid, Yossarian causes the death of his best friend, Nately; the novel kills off a comparatively minor character in this scene. Yossarian embarrasses the gung-ho McWatt in front of Colonel Cathcart, and in the next scene McWatt accidentally flies his plane into Kid Sampson. Worst of all, Yossarian advises Snowden to sit in the fuselage on their mission together, and it’s there that Snowden is hit by flak and dies in Yossarian’s arms.

It’s difficult to understand how the narrative benefits by making Yossarian the source, even if unwitting and well-intentioned, of so much death. It undermines his credibility as a moral authority to the extent that, by the end of the series, there’s no one left to root for. His clumsiness with his friends’ lives stands in stark contrast to the raging star of the novel, who valued the preservation of human life above nationality, religion, bravery, political causes, and anything else.

It’s not all bad – not by a longshot. George Clooney and Hugh Laurie are memorable in their roles. Milo Minderbinder’s satire of capitalism is brought to entertaining life. The relationship between Nately’s whore’s kid sister and Yossarian is worth special mention. There’s a great contrast between this small child, who’s grown up in a world of darkness and war, and the much older but more naïve Yossarian. Their sweet friendship culminates in the show’s most heartbreaking moment.

Each work of art should be judged on its own merits. Heller himself said as much when asked whether he was worried that Nichols’s film might tarnish his novel’s reputation. On its own, Hulu’s Catch-22 is a modestly recommendable miniseries. But Heller’s novel is a tour de force of violence and humor. The show ultimately submits the viewer to its pessimistic outcome, whereas the novel motivates the reader to feel its righteous anger.

Stan Lee, major architect of American pop culture, dies at 95

Stan Lee

“Most people retire so they can go do what they want. I’m already doing what I want. I like to write. I like to work with creative people. If I retired, I’d be giving up my fun.” – Stan Lee

Stan Lee was 95 years old, pushing 96, when he passed away on November 12. His wife of nearly 70 years, Joan, died last year. After her death, reports emerged about Lee’s own health issues and troubled personal life, including elder abuse and shady estate finagling. The writing was on the wall: the living legend’s time was coming.

Everyone whose life he touched – and they must number in the hundreds of millions – is affected. By now, the story is well-known. Lee, the editor of Timely Comics – later Atlas, and eventually Marvel – was frustrated with his industry and contemplating a career change. On his way out the door, and with two of the most imaginative artistic storytellers in the field, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, in his employ, Lee transformed a company known primarily for cheap genre comics into the leading innovator in superhero literature. Continue reading

Republicans plead for civility


Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked to leave the Red Hen restaurant, an incident that became a flashpoint in the culture war.

For three years, Donald Trump has dominated America’s cultural conversation. In that time, he has accused Mexico of sending rapists and drug dealers over the border, mocked a disabled reporter’s handicap, encouraged his crowds to physically assault protesters, and labeled journalists the “enemy of the people.” As President, he has done all he can to shred America’s life-saving social safety net, banned Muslims from entering America, and held migrant children hostage in cages. Now, Trump and his enablers are asking for one thing: civility. Continue reading

Right-wing snowflakes outraged over Michelle Wolf’s anti-elitist standup routine


Comedian Michelle Wolf performs at the White House Correspondents Dinner, mere feet away from the targets of some of her most brutal jokes.

Comedian Michelle Wolf delivered a risqué performance at the White House Correspondents Dinner last Saturday and became a hot topic overnight. The annual dinner, which is typically a stuffy affair, brings together Democratic and Republican politicians and media personalities for a night of awkward, elitist camaraderie. Wolf’s performance, laced with explicit references to President Trump’s scandals and sexual history, earned the ire of the far-right – a rich irony, given that group’s crusade against political correctness. Continue reading

The Second Amendment, the NRA, and the quest to militarize American life


Parkland shooting survivor-turned-activist Emma Gonzalez (left) grills NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch on gun control.

The Second Amendment to the United States Constitution is one of the most hotly debated pieces of text in history. For devotees, it guarantees the most important freedom ever enshrined in a government document. For critics, it is a dangerous relic of colonial history with little relevance to modern life. Continue reading

Republicans abandon all pretense of public service


President Trump appears with two powerful members of his administration, both Goldman Sachs alumni. Gary Cohn is on the left and Steve Mnuchin is in the middle.

If there’s one thing the Republican Party can be counted on to do, it’s lower the tax burden of wealthy Americans. They’re in the midst of an effort to do so right now, and one bill recently passed in the House of Representatives. But the bill is massively unpopular, with only 25 percent of Americans approving of it. Republicans have a remarkably candid response when pressed as to why they are pushing such unpopular and destructive legislation: it’s to please their donors. Continue reading

A tale of two responses: Trump on attacks in Vegas, Texas and New York

Trump somber

The president adopts a voice of calm after white terror attacks, and a voice of venomous outrage after Muslim ones.

Three high-profile atrocities have occurred on American soil in the span of five weeks. On October 1, a man opened fire from a Las Vegas hotel window and shot more than 600 people, killing 58 of them. On October 31, a man drove a truck into a crowd in New York City and killed eight people. And on November 5, a man shot and killed 26 people at a church in the small town of Sutherland Springs, Texas.

At least since 9/11, the protocol for atrocity in America is militarism and nationalism if the perpetrator is a dark-skinned Muslim, thoughts and prayers for the victims if the perpetrator is white. In these recent events, President Trump’s tweets gave us a healthy sample of each. Continue reading

With Trump criticism, Limbaugh reveals the core of Republicanism


Rush Limbaugh in a customary pose.

On his radio show last week, far-right commentator Rush Limbaugh used the word “dictatorial” to describe President Donald Trump’s demands that NFL team owners force players to stand for the National Anthem. Said Limbaugh, “There’s a part of this story that’s starting to make me nervous, and it’s this. I am very uncomfortable with the president of the United States being able to dictate the behavior and power of anybody. That’s not where this should be coming from.”

Limbaugh’s comments were covered giddily by much of left-wing media. Headlines and commentary suggested he had broken with Trump. But even if the remarks did represent a break from Trump – Limbaugh stressed repeatedly that they did not – there’s still no cause for celebration. Because Limbaugh’s real point isn’t that President Trump was out of line, but that if anybody is going to restrict First Amendment rights for the players, it should be the team owners.

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America needs a shrink


A new book by mental health experts examines the deteriorated psyche of the American president.

Last week a group of psychiatrists released a book, The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump. It caused a controversy not only because of its claims about the president, but also because the psychiatrists appeared to break with their profession’s ethical tradition and diagnose a public figure from a distance. They aren’t alone. Some 60,000 mental health professionals have signed a petition stating, “Donald Trump manifests a serious mental illness that renders him psychologically incapable of competently discharging the duties of President of the United States.”

Plenty of Trump observers might think that obvious, but it’s a stunning development. Never before have so many mental health professionals warned us about a public figure. And members of Trump’s own party have come to similar conclusions. Senator Bob Corker recently called the White House an “adult day care center” and charged Trump with recklessly setting the nation “on the path to World War III.” The mental instability of the man in charge of America’s nuclear arsenal is well worth taking seriously.

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Carnage in Las Vegas makes the need for stricter gun control clearer than ever


People scramble for cover as a gunman opens fire on a crowded concert from his hotel room window.

Mass shootings are so commonplace in America that news outlets can practically recycle old stories verbatim, changing only the names of the suspects, the locations, and the number of dead. When pundits are summoned to give their opinion, those responses, too, are predictably rote. Whether it’s said once or it’s said a thousand times, though, there is only one solution to America’s epidemic of gun violence: stricter regulation of the weapons in question. Continue reading