‘Catch-22’: War is hell, but sometimes silly, in George Clooney’s military satire

Joseph Heller’s great novel becomes a beautifully photographed, satirical series for Hulu.

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George Clooney (left), one of the directors of “Catch-22,” also co-stars with Christopher Abbott and Pico Alexander.

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It’s a Catch-22.

The phrase Joseph Heller coined in his 1961 novel of the same name remains popular today as a way of describing a paradoxical predicament, i.e., you are totally effed either way.

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A three-part docuseries available now on Discovery+.

In producer-star George Clooney’s impressively filmed, scorching and dark and wickedly funny Hulu limited-series adaptation of Heller’s novel (which was turned into a film in 1970), Christopher Abbott’s John Yossarian is a World War II Air Force bombardier trying to persuade squadron physician Doc Daneeka (Grant Heslov) to send home a fellow pilot, because the guy has lost it.

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Paramount Television and Anonymous Content present a six-episode series directed by George Clooney, Grant Heslov and Ellen Kuras and written by Luke Davies and David Michôd. Begins streaming Friday on Hulu.

“Sure, I can ground Orr,” says the doc. “But first he has to ask me. [But] anyone that wants to get out of combat duty isn’t really crazy ...

“Orr’s crazy, and therefore, he can get out of flying combat missions. All he has to do is ask. But as soon as he asks, he’s no longer crazy, and so he has to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to want to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he’s sane, then has to fly them. If he flies them, then he’s crazy and so he doesn’t have to, but if doesn’t want to then he’s sane, and so … he has to.”

Catch-22.

Over the course of six episodes, “Catch-22” does a magnificent job of turning Heller’s non-linear, viewpoint-shifting, sometimes maddeningly dense novel into a chronologically accessible, superbly photographed, well-acted social and political wartime satire piece that toggles between black comedy and brutally authentic depiction of the horrors of war.

When Yossarian and his fellow airmen are in their B-25 bombers in the skies above Italy, desperately trying to maneuver through enemy fire and dropping their payloads, we feel as if we’re in the cockpit with them. The CGI effects are worthy of a major feature film.

The shifting visual palettes are just as impressive, with the war sequences filmed documentary style, while the R&R respites, the romantic scenes and the squadron hijinks are drenched in olives and gold and soft reds, and often look like color home movies from the time.

And as you’d expect, the soundtrack is saturated with big-band hits and ballads from the mid-20th century, including a rendition of “No Love, No Nothin’ ” by George’s aunt, Rosemary Clooney, and the Mills Brothers’ “Paper Doll,” which was a No. 1 hit for three straight months during the height of World War II.

Chris Abbott (“Whiskey Tango Foxtrot,” HBO’s “Girls”) gives a genuine leading-man performance as Yossarian, the handsome bomber pilot mired in a Sisyphus-type nightmare in which he continually risks his life in one bombing mission after another in the Mediterranean Theatre and reaches the required number of missions to be sent home — only to be told the rules have changed and he’s gonna have to go back up there and it’s bombs away all over again.

Clooney, all severe military haircut and bulging eyes and throbbing veins, looks and sounds as if he’s once again in a Coen brothers movie, leaving all subtly behind in his portrayal of the rage-filled Col. Scheisskopf.

Yossarian is sleeping with Scheisskopf’s wife, Marion (Julie Ann Emery) because she’s beautiful and smart and great — but yes, also because she’s married to his tormenter.

Grant Heslov, who co-produced with Clooney and directed two episodes (as did Clooney, with Ellen Kuras helming the other two), is a hoot as the deadpan, fast-talking Doc Daneeka, who gives Yossarian “advice” on how to avoid further combat action.

“There’s nothing wrong with your appendix,” Doc tells Yossarian. “Next time time say there’s something wrong with your liver, if there’s something wrong with your liver I can keep you here for weeks.”

“There’s something wrong with my liver.”

“There’s nothing wrong with your liver!”

At times “Catch-22” spends a little too much time on madcap comedic shenanigans revolving around complex black-market machinations involving tomatoes and goats and Polish sausage, but even the less compelling scenes have entertainment value, thanks in large part to a superb supporting cast that includes Kyle Chandler, Giancarlo Giannini, Hugh Laurie and Tessa Ferrer.

Some of the comedy will remind you of “MASH,” but Heller’s novel actually came first. It’s not easy to balance a whip-smart farce about military bureaucracy with deadly serious wartime issues, but “Catch-22” does just that.

At a hearing after an Air Force pilot commits suicide by ramming his plane into a hillside, Yossarian is asked, “Would you call him insane?”

“Aren’t we all,” comes the reply, and that’s really funny and more than a little spot-on.

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