When war gets absurd: George Clooney returns to the small screen with Catch-22

George Clooney and some of the other cast in a scene from the new Catch-22 series.

George Clooney directs and stars in a new TV take on Catch-22, writes Gemma Dunn

GEORGE Clooney’s memory of Catch-22 harks back to his school days. And the actor winner, who not only stars in, but produced and co-directed the upcoming TV adaptation of Joseph Heller’s 1961 novel, remembers it well.

“It was one of the must-reads — but it was dense,” he quips of the seminal title. “It’s hard reading, it took a lot. But at the time, it felt like the kind of writing, the style of writing, that we hadn’t seen much of.

“We’ve seen some since, but it’s nice when you go back and read a book 40 years later and it doesn’t let you down — that doesn’t happen all that often!

“It’s like when you see movies — my wife is considerably younger than me — and I say, ‘Oh, you’ve gotta see this film, it’s one of the greatest films I’ve ever seen’ and we watch it and it’s terrible now. What was I thinking?” says the actor who, at 58, is married to and has twins with human rights lawyer Amal, 41.

“So, the experience I had with Catch-22, as a young man, is you’re supposed to read it,” he teases.

“And the fun part, as an old man, is it was nice to read it.”

The six-part anti-war satire — which will air on Channel 4, having already premiered on US channel Hulu — follows the ludicrous and darkly comic actions of US Air Force pilots during the Second World War.

Namely. the incomparable Captain John Yossarian (played by Girls’ Christopher Abbott), who is enraged that thousands of people he has never met are trying to kill him.

Any attempt to forfeit his military assignments, however, threatens to put him in violation of Catch-22, a bureaucratic rule which states that a man is considered insane if he willingly continues to fly dangerous combat missions, whereas a request to be removed from duty is evidence of sanity.

STARRY CAST

Joining Yossarian is the obsessive Colonel Cathcart (Kyle Chandler); the fierce Major de Coverley (Hugh Laurie); and the moustache-wielding Lieutenant (later Colonel and eventually General) Scheisskopf, helmed by Clooney.

It marks his first television role since ER ended 10 years ago — but a return to the era, following his directorial post in action drama The Monuments Men back in 2014.

Does he have a piqued interest?

“If I’m flicking through the channels, it’s the history channel that I end up on, just to watch old documentaries,” admits the self-confessed history buff.

And there’s never a bad time to “talk about the absurdity of war” either, Clooney insists.

“There’s [also] never a bad time to talk about trying to beat the system,” maintains the Kentucky-born star. “Because the system pretty much always wins, and most people feel that way.

“I feel like we are facing a pretty absurd time in our lives — all of us, every country around the world right now,” he notes. “So any time we’re able to laugh about it and remind ourselves that these things are temporary, it’s probably a good thing to do.

“If you don’t have your sense of humour, if you can’t mock, make fun of and jab that guy in the eye every once in a while, then you know...” he tails off. “It’s a good thing to have. It’s healthy.”

But this isn’t the novel’s first revision. The popular classic — from which the now-commonplace catch-22 phrase was derived — was originally seen on the big screen in 1970, with Alan Arkin, Michael Sheen, Jon Voight and Art Garfunkel amongst its stellar cast.

This is simply a chance to tell it differently, Clooney recognises.

“It’s a way to tackle this story that you haven’t been able to do, that you couldn’t do, in two hours,” he reiterates.

“We kill a lot of people, but when you kill them in the movie, you don’t get to learn who Garfunkel’s character is or who Martin Sheen’s character is...” he reckons.

“Whereas with a six-hour piece, their deaths have some resonance, and it’s not just funny.

“The beauty of being able to tell it in a longer form is why we wanted to do it.”

Known for his prolific Hollywood career — take the Oceans trilogy and his Oscar-winning performance in Syriana as more recent examples — Clooney hasn’t ventured far from the spotlight since his acting debut in 1978.

But it was his move behind the camera with biographical spy comedy Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind in 2002 that’s seen him go on to become an accomplished director, producer and filmmaker — even scooping an Oscar for co-producing political thriller Argo in 2012.

QUALITY MATERIAL

Today, he just wants to make something, “Well, good”.

“It’s hard to find good pieces of material; I read tonnes of crap, quite honestly, and go, ‘Oh my God, they’re going to make this and do a show or a movie. Oh my God’. And then they do!” he exclaims.

“We got handed six scripts [for Catch-22] that were spectacular, and I thought, ‘Well, I’d like to see that show and I’d like to be involved in whatever way I can’. Because our main job is to supply six hours of escapism and entertainment and hopefully do a good job with that. That’s what we focused on.”

As a busy dad-of-two, he has to think carefully about his next steps, too.

“If you’re going to direct something that’s going to take one-and-a-half years out of your life — and with kids, two years, it has to be something that you’re willing to take a risk on, something that’s worth doing,” warns Clooney.

“I have been lucky in my career; I’ve had some things that have been very fun and easy and stuff, and then you kind of go, ‘What’s the next level?’ And you want to take some chances, you want to try some interesting stuff.

“But listen, there’s what, 430 scripted television shows out this year?” he recalls.

“It’s unbelievably great for actors and clearly this is the golden age of television. I believe that. But there’s a lot to sift through to get to those.”

He follows: “But I’ve never really cared about what the medium was. I just wanted to do good work.

“Television is really allowing you to do the same kind of interesting work that I was able to do in smaller, independent films before,” finishes Clooney.

“So what really matters is the content. That’s all you care about.”

Catch-22 starts on Channel 4 next Thursday, June 20

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