There’s a catch about “Catch-22.”
How do you adapt Joseph Heller’s acclaimed, sprawling 1961 novel satirizing the bureaucracy of World War II, while improving upon Mike Nichols’ 1970 movie?
Well, if you’re Hulu, you get George Clooney to executive produce and star in the six-episode miniseries, his first regular TV role since “ER” premiered 25 years ago and turned him into a household name.
“I remember it being such a fascinating, well-written book about a cowardly guy who you somehow root for, which I thought was fascinating,” Clooney says.
Capt. John Yossarian (Christopher Abbott) remains the central character, an Army Air Corps bombardier in wartime Italy who faces the conundrum of the century: How do you escape from bombing missions by claiming you’re crazy, if doing so is evidence that you aren’t?
It’s especially problematic when his commanding officer, Col. Cathcart (Kyle Chandler), keeps randomly increasing his flight quota, just as he nears the end of his tour of duty. So Yossarian resorts to ever more desperate measures to stay out of harm’s way, especially as his fellow airmen perish in a pointless exercise.
“I’m sympathetic to his plight,” says Abbott (“Girls”), who relates to Yossarian’s “semi-existential view on life. All he’s kind of doing is asking 'why' a lot. I guess you can almost call him a coward for trying to evade these missions ... but he’s seeing the powers that be puppeteer him and his friends around him, and he’s the only one who’s really seeing it. The Germans are on the run, there’s nothing left to really fight. He’s going through another circle of hell that he can’t get his head around. It’s not that he’s afraid to die, by any means. He’s just afraid to die at the hands of some inane bureaucratic system.”
The series, at more than twice the length of Nichols’ movie, develops its characters – largely the airmen around Yossarian – in a way the movie couldn’t. “You can really get to know some of these characters before you knock them off,” Clooney says. “It’s one of the rules of storytelling.”
Clooney was set to play Cathcart until he realized the workload required for the four-month shoot in Sardinia and Rome, for which he directed two episodes. “Just to play a part that was as big as Cathcart was a bridge too far,” he says.
So instead, he plays Gen. Scheisskopf, who makes brief but memorable appearances in three episodes. “What inspired Scheisskopf mostly was the English translation of scheisskopf, which is (expletive)-head. That’s all you really need to know about the character.” (And that he loves military parades.)
Clooney is ready with compliments about his co-stars. On Chandler: “I’ve never seen him do anything like what he did in this show; he plays him like a buffoon. On the set it was the funniest thing you’ve ever seen.”
And he considers Abbott leading-man material, capable of juggling the abrupt tonal shifts from satire to harrowing peril: “He’s playing a guy who does some pretty terrible, pretty shady, pretty cowardly things, and you still laugh, and you still root for him.”
“I’ve never attempted something like this guy; it was sort of intimidating,” Chandler says. “I had no idea what was going to happen when I opened my mouth.” Cathcart has “gone into a world where everything’s so myopic, so narrowly focused, (that) all he wants is that generalship, all he wants is that press, all he wants is that attention. There's a sadness to him and a humility, but it doesn’t show until the end.”
“Catch-22” borrowed two B-25 bombers, flown in on a series of short flights from Ohio and California, to use in the production, but used digital trickery to make the bombing scenes seem low-tech and specific to the 1940s.
“The way we know World War II is from 16 mm grainy footage,” Clooney says. “So we really focused on trying to not make it pristine. We wanted to be moving constantly (and) make it too dark in places, as if (Frank) Capra was shooting, or John Huston was shooting his documentaries. It was a challenge for us, but made it interesting.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Catch-22': George Clooney on retooling wartime classic about 'cowardly guy' you root for