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Catch 22 – The Unfilmable Masterpiece Brought to Film

Catch 22 – The Unfilmable Masterpiece Brought to Film


Catch 22 a television series not to be missed.

When being interviewed about a later novel, Joseph Heller was bluntly advised that he has never written anything as good as Catch 22. His response,

“True, but neither has anyone else.”

Heller was correct. The novel sits at the very peak of the literary pyramid. It is considered alongside The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer to be the greatest written works to emerge from WWII. Catch 22 is a masterpiece. One minute you are laughing out loud at the absurdity of war, the next shedding a quiet tear at the senselessness of the slaughter. The story was considered unfilmable, although a somewhat patchy attempt was made in 1970. There was too much material to squeeze into a single movie, too much humour alongside too much sadness.

Catch 22 - George Clooney
Photo: Hulu

The book was finally revisited some decades years later by way of a six part series released in 2019. It took the heft of former hollywood heavyweight George Clooney to get it off the ground. The budget appears to have been befitting the scope of the enterprise. Clooney is more punchline than a movieman these days, roaming the planet with his activist lawyer wife searching for causes worthy of his soaring liberal ego.

We Live in the Golden Age of Television

He directed several of the episodes, and co-stars, his blindingly white teeth almost ruining almost all of his scenes. But, overall, the series borders on television greatness. It’s a potent combination of exceptional storytelling material, casting, editing, acting, and location. The Italian scenery is breath-taking. The music adds depth and mood. Catch 22  is that rare combination of everything going right.

The characters laugh a lot, but the audience does not. We are instead offered the ridiculousness and pointlessness of war, the heartbreak of bright young teenagers who do not return from their bombing missions, the inevitable nature of their untimely deaths.

Catch 22 - Christopher Abbot
Photo: Entertainment Weekly / Hulu

Christopher Abbot, who stars as Yousarian, is utterly superb. The range of emotions captured on his face is mesmerising. The supporting cast is solid across the board, with special mention going to Daniel David Stewart who plays Milo, who is something of a pre-runner to Dick Cheney – a man history will record as the greatest war profiteer of all time. Milo learns that war is the perfect business opportunity and is soon trading Irish whisky, Italian tomatoes, herds of goats, crates of artichokes, Polish sausage, and Scottish lamb chops via a fleet of commandeered airplanes on behalf of his ubiquitous syndicate.

We live during the golden age of television. World-class programming whizzes past us at such a speed that there is no time for the mediocre, or even the good, we now demand to be spoon fed just the great. There is always the fear that the grass might be greener on one of the other streaming platforms, and we inevitably become afflicted with the dreaded millennial disease of FOMO.

The Role of the Serious Critic

Catch 22 is a television series not to be missed. If you haven’t read the novel, do yourself a double favour and read that too. The work of a serious critic is not to sing praises, and those familiar with my work know that I am not readily impressed. I found London to be a wretched Orwellian postcode not worthy of visitation. Catch 22 impressed me. Watch it.

G G Novack – Film, Television and Literature Critic

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