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George Clooney is the driving force behind a new adaptation of Catch-22

World War II-era Catch-22 swings from drama to comedy as John Yossarian slowly loses his mind.

1970 was quite the year for war: Robert Altman’s movie M*A*S*H, depicting a medical unit during the Korean War, was released; Edwin Starr’s recording of War hit the charts; and an adaptation of Joseph Heller’s 1961 novel Catch-22, directed by Mike Nichols, came out.

Only two of these things were successful. M*A*S*H won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and was nominated for five Academy Awards, winning one, and War went to the top of the US charts.

Catch-22 failed to capture a US audience that was becoming increasingly bitter about the war in Vietnam. Nevertheless, Heller’s book became one of the most significant American novels of the 20th century, the term “catch-22” joined the lexicon, and in more recent years, Nichols’ film has found a cult following.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

But why, after any number of war movies, from Apocalypse Now and Three Kings to The Hurt Locker and beyond, is it a good idea to revisit the World War II-era Catch-22 (TVNZ OnDemand, from Saturday)?

George Clooney has a simple answer. “There is never a bad time to talk about the insanity of war,” he told Entertainment Weekly. Clooney appears in the series, is a co-producer and has directed two of the six episodes.

After being initially uninterested, he was persuaded by the scripts written by two Australians, Luke Davies (who was Oscar-nominated for Lion) and Animal Kingdom writer-director David Michôd (who has form with another war satire, War Machine, starring Brad Pitt).

“They did such a beautiful job,” Clooney says. He can also thank his production team for doing a brilliant job on the costumes, props and sets. The series was filmed in Italy, with Sardinia subbing in for the island of Pianosa, and features real B-25 bombers and some pretty scary mission scenes.

The absurdity of it all comes through, from Clooney screaming at his troops at an air-training base in Santa Ana, to Hugh Laurie as Major de Coverley (no one dares ask his first name) throwing horseshoes and eating lamb chops.

Perhaps not unlike the TV series M*A*S*H*, Catch-22 manages to swing from drama to comedy, with Christopher Abbott (Girls) a sympathetic John Yossarian, slowly losing his mind as the number of bombing missions is raised, then raised again.

“He constantly feels like he’s screaming down an empty hallway,” Abbott told EW. “He feels very alone. He doesn’t understand how his friends are so willing to give their lives over to something that he thinks is essentially inane.”

Video: ONE Media

This article was first published in the May 18, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.