It's based on a 58-year-old novel about a war that ended 74 years ago, but the Catch-22 miniseries is filled with moments that will resonate, comically and tragically, with any combat veteran today. From the young sergeant proposing marriage to his favorite prostitute, to the kid who dies before he can unpack his bags, it's a hell of a story.
Catch-22 was written six decades ago by World War II veteran Joseph Heller, but change the B-25s to CH-47s and make the sands of Pianosa (an Italian island) the sands of Afghanistan, Iraq, or Kuwait, and all the characters and most of the plots would fit right in.
The new miniseries from George Clooney, which features him in the supporting role of an insane commander of cadets, includes all the best moments from the novel. The funny ones, and the ones that capture the horror of conflict. Moments like these seven:
When a slight error in directions puts a man in mortal danger
When a new gunner shows up to the squadron, he's bunked in the tent of Yossarian, the main protagonist of the novel and the only one of the miniseries. Yossarian isn't the most helpful of lieutenants, but he gives the new sergeant directions to the administration tent. A slight miscount of tents sends the sergeant to the ops tent, instead.
So the sergeant, instead of signing in to the unit, gets thrown into the next plane going up on a mission, a dangerous one over Nazi-controlled Italy.
When an Army sergeant tries to marry an Italian whore
Tell me if you've heard this one before: A young Army sergeant meets an attractive sex worker, falls in love, and wants to get married, even though everyone in the unit tells him it's a horrible idea.
In Catch-22, that's Nately, and his enduring loves goes to "Nately's Whore," an Italian woman with a funny pimp and a clever younger sister. While Nately's story is a bit cliche, it also features one of the better lines of sergeants loving sex workers.
"Sure, she's a prostitute now, but she won't be once I marry her."
When a piece of flak almost sends the hero home
During one of the bombardier's missions, he almost gets his "million dollar wound," the one that would let him go home. Slight spoiler: He's hit in the nuts by flak. As the American doctor later explains, any man who gives up a nut for his country is entitled to go home. But any man who almost loses a testicle has to fly more missions.
And, spoiler, Yossarian only almost lost his testicle. A piece of shrapnel passed through his scrotum, between his testicles.
When an aviator creates a mock scrotum to ask about his testicles
And how did Yossarian learn that he still had two testicles? An Italian doctor told him. But the Italian man only spoke Italian, and Yossarian only spoke English, so he did a bit of improvisation, just like any soldier trying to communicate with a local would do.
In Yossarian's case, that was turning a handkerchief into an improvised scrotum filled with two nearby pieces of fruit. Then he pointed at the fake nut sack, said, "Two," pointed at his own sack, and asked, "Two?" The doctor got the idea, laughed, and confirmed the boys were still present.
When the colonel tries to cover up failure by giving an award and promotion
At one point, our hero is so distracted on a bombing run that he goes through the whole run-up, gives all the verbal commands and watches for the release point, but forgets to actually throw the lever to release the bombs. Yossarian, pretty strung out by this point, decides to just get his plane to go around for another pass.
(Major spoiler) But on that second pass, a beloved character is killed, and Yossarian blames himself for making the second run. His bosses blame him too. But when they go to punish him, they suddenly realize that punishing the bombardier would send the message that the mission failed. So, to maintain the perception that the mission was a success, they promote him and give him a medal instead.
(Then, for slightly related reasons, they have him arrested about 24 hours later.)
When the whole world turns dark
But the most familiar parts of the miniseries, and the novel, are the dark moments, when the humor melts away, and the terrifying reality of the war smashes its way in like the world's most horrible Kool-Aid Man. We aren't going to list any moments here, because all of them are major spoilers.
But the themes of loss, vulnerability, the futility of war, rampant capitalism, and more are all explored. The "loss" one comes up a lot.
The titular catch: Catch-22
It's in most of the ads, so you've probably seen how Catch-22 works. If not, it's a piece of bureaucratic genius that sounds exactly like something the Army would come up with.
Flying bombing missions is suicidal and, therefore, insane. Anyone who is insane doesn't have to fly bombing missions. All they have to do is present themselves to a doctor and ask to go home. Except.
Except that the moment they ask to go home, the doctor is required to take that as the thought process of a rational mind. Rational people aren't crazy and can't be sent home for insanity.
So anyone who asks to go home, can't. Anyone who doesn't ask can go home anytime, as soon as they ask.
If you've got Hulu, you can check out the show anytime. If not, the book is probably better anyway. Sure, you don't get to watch Hugh Laurie, but there are even more jokes than in the miniseries. And the novel was written by a vet, so it avoids some of the military mistakes like the show makes. (One guy wearing massive sergeant stripes introduces himself as a lieutenant. There's about one mistake like that per episode.)