Some things can be entirely brilliant and admirable without being terribly enjoyable. I’ve always felt this about Joseph Heller’s Second World War novel, Catch-22, which I’ve never quite managed to finish reading, and I feel it, too, about Paramount’s new adaptation of the book (20 June, 9pm), which is executive-produced by George Clooney and in which he takes a small role playing the egomaniacal General Scheisskopf.
It is very, very good. Its writers, Luke Davies and David Michôd, have done an incredibly smooth job given the way that, on the page, Heller makes the reader do so much of the work (the novel, published in 1961, has a famously tricksy non-chronological and highly repetitive third-person narration). Everything looks magnificent and period-perfect, from the bunk rooms to the scenes in the sky. The performances are, without exception, brilliant. Christopher Abbott, who plays Captain John Yossarian, aka YoYo, a bombardier who is increasingly desperate to avoid flying combat missions, is superb: understated in a way that only underlines his terror. And yet, there is something about it that leaves me cold.
I understand perfectly well what it wants to tell me, which is that war is madness. But on some level, I cannot quite get fully involved with it. What’s the problem, exactly? I’ve been trying to work it out. In an interview with Abbott and Clooney I read recently, the journalist, bending over backwards to be appropriate in a 21st century way, suggested delicately that its focus on white men “feels idiosyncratic to a modern viewer”. But this isn’t it, for me.
Catch-22 is the product of a particular time and place and culture. I don’t see any point in arguing with that. Its themes, after all, are universal. The idea that those who are in charge of fighting wars – the officers as opposed to those poor sods they will lead to almost certain death – are halfway to being psychotic may be applied to any conflict, now as then. So, too, may Heller’s conviction that the bureaucracy of war – the seemingly futile rules and regulations embodied by the novel’s title – can send a young man rapidly round the bend. (Catch-22 states that an airman can only be grounded if he’s crazy: he merely has to ask; but to ask is to demonstrate sanity, and thus he will swiftly be returned to his crew.)
No, I think it’s the talkiness that pushes me away; the satirical jokes and the fondness for paradox. Catch-22 is about fear and conscience and cowardice, but it’s also about boredom and frustration, and in its efforts to convey those things – this is a faithful adaptation, at least in terms of intent – it often ends up being boring and frustrating itself. When, for instance, YoYo, now stationed in Italy, has managed to blag his way into the infirmary, only to find one of his fellow patients simply will not stop talking, you share his tedium perhaps a little too much. I love the young mess officer who’s trying to make black market bucks out of illicitly gorgeous European produce (“This is olive oil,” he says, pouring a slick of the green stuff over a fat tomato before offering it to his commanding officer as if he was a bow-tied waiter, and it a spoonful of caviar). But just how many conversations about supply lines, profit margins and Polish sausages must we listen to? (That said, I do like Hugh Laurie’s turn as Major de Coverley, who craves lamb chops the way other men long for tobacco and women.)
This isn’t to say that the whole thing isn’t shot through with pity and loss, because it is, and rightly so. Up among the clouds, planes drop like pine cones from a tree; folded into the glass coffin that is the nose cone of his B-25, YoYo looks to his left and sees the bloody face of one of his comrades smeared across its exterior like so much jam. When the number of missions the men must fly is raised, as it is, again and again, your heart beats a little faster for Yossarian. You care not a jot about the bad things he does because you know that you would do them, too, in the same circumstances – and for that reason alone, I hope sententious types high on the current wave of wartime nostalgia will be more patient than me, and stick with it.
This article appears in the 19 Jun 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Bad news