TV Mini-Series – Catch-22

It must be 40 years since I read Joseph Heller’s classic. I’m sure that many people younger than me who use / misuse the term “catch-22” have never heard of Heller, let alone read the book. This six-part mini-series, directed by George Clooney, Grant Heslov and Ellen Kuras, is a brilliant adaptation of the novel. It’s so long since I read the book, I cannot, however, attest to its faithfulness to the original.

What I can say is that it is in equal parts moving, hilarious, farcical, depressing, cynical and, I suspect, very accurate, in relation to the reality of war. The main role of John Yossarian (‘Yo-Yo’) is a played by Christopher Abbott. Abbott manages to capture Yo-Yo’s endearing combination of intelligence, naiveté, passion, bravery, compassion, humour and sensitivity. His facial expressions in particular are highly skilled and the camera close-ups on his face are a key part of setting the tone of the production. It’s one of those performances which make it hard for anyone else to play the role.

Clooney has a significant part as the eccentric Scheisskopf. Almost stealing the show is Daniel David Stewart as Milo Minderbinder, the fast talking but lovable budding capitalist, who finds the most inventive ways of making money out of war (presaging perhaps the rise of disaster capitalism, Bechtel, Halliburton etc.). Hugh Laurie appears early on, including the central role in one of the funniest scenes in the whole series. Not all of the characters are funny and likeable however, and the cruelty of war is represented, though perhaps not as fully as it might be.

Yossarian finds himself trapped in a paradise island off the coast of Italy, which the U.S. army air force is using as a base to bomb the German forces on the mainland. His life consists of contrasting periods – swimming in pristine waters, boredom awaiting the next mission and the nightmare of being a sitting target in a bomber aircraft flying over Italy. The erosion of his sanity progresses steadily until the last episode, in which the viewer is confronted with the full horror and futility of war and the contorted logic of those in command.

Highly recommended.


copyright Mike Hopkins 2019

Book Review: What You Have Heard Is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance by Carolyn Forché

What You Have Heard Is True: A Memoir of Witness and ResistanceWhat You Have Heard Is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance by Carolyn Forché

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This brilliant book is Carolyn Forché’s memoir, concentrating on the time she spent in war-torn El Salvador in the late 1970s, and how, incredibly, she became involved with that country. Most people who have heard of Forché will have read her brilliant poem “The Colonel”, (https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem…). This is not a book of poetry, it is the story of how a poet becomes active in the fight against a brutal military dictatorship, how she became a “poet of witness”.

I was pretty much unaware of the civil war in El Salvador until seeing the moving film Romero thirty years ago – it depicts the life and death of the charismatic Oscar Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8G27j…)

Forché was at home in her apartment in southern California, when a complete stranger, accompanied by his two daughters, knocks on her door, having driven from El Salvador specifically to meet her. At the time, Forché was “a one-book poet in her 20s”. The stranger, Leonel Gómez, turns out to be a cousin of a friend of Forché. He proceeds, over three days, to educate her on the history of central America, drawing stick figures and pencil maps on butchers paper on her dining table. Gómez tells her that a war as big as Vietnam is about to erupt in El Salvador, and that he wants her, as a poet, to witness and record the events. Amazingly, Forché agrees to go to El Salvador. This book is the story of what she witnessed.

Even at the end of the book, it is not 100% clear who Leonel Gómez is. He appears to have a foot in both the military and the guerrilla camps, whilst both sides suspect him of being a CIA agent. He deliberately cultivates uncertainty by being seen to spend time with ambassadors, politicians, churchmen, nuns, campesinos (the poor farmers struggling to survive under near starvation conditions) and members of the resistance. In turn, he encourages Forché to cultivate the same air of mystery as a means of discouraging attacks on her by the right wing death squads that roam El Salvador. What she does know is that Gómez is a coffee farmer, and a man determined to open her eyes to what is going on in front of her. Through Gómez she is able to meet officers in the highest levels of the military, to visit sites of massacres, to narrowly avoid being shot on several occasions, to spend time with the nuns, priests and hierarchy in the Catholic Church who are speaking up against the repression of the campesinos. As usual, the role of the U.S.A. in propping up the brutal right wing military regime as a bulwark against supposed communism, is central to the chaotic situation.

This is a gripping and moving memoir for anyone interested in the history of Central America, the terrible disruption caused by U.S.A. foreign policy and the role that poetry can play in bearing witness to awful events.

View all my reviews

Copyright Mike Hopkins 2019