Over this blog’s nearly two year history (our official two-year anniversary arrives this Thursday which really wigs me out), I’ve reviewed a lot of movies based off of books that I’ve never read. 2001: A Space Odyssey, Choke (although I wound up reading Chuck Palahniuk’s superior book later), The Help, About Schmidt. I could go on for a while. But there are few novels as essential to the American canon of literature that I haven’t actually read as Joseph Heller’s classic anti-war novel Catch-22. Director Mike Nichols (The Graduate) had the unenviable task of adapting one of the most celebrated novels of the 1960s. And while it was easy to spot without having read the book that screenwriter Buck Henry had to condense many larger, more complicated storylines in ways that didn’t work so well on the big screen, Catch-22 finally found its footing by film’s end and became an anti-war farce to rival the film version of M*A*S*H.
Captain Yossarian (The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming‘s Alan Arkin) is a U.S. Air Force bombardier on the Italian front during World War II. Having watched a comrade die in his arms as Yossarian survived a crash landing, Yossarian wants to be grounded and to not have to fly any more combat missions. And to do that, he has to convince his superior officers that he’s crazy. But there’s a catch. Catch-22 (and the origin of that ubiquitous phrase into the American lexicon). In order to want to fly those suicidal missions into enemy territory, you’d have to be crazy. But, if you ask to be grounded on the basis on insanity, you’re sane for not wanting to fly those dangerous missions. So, you either fly the missions cause you’re crazy or you ask to not fly them but have to fly them because you’re sane.
Catch-22 becomes a consistently non-linear look at the events leading up to and following the stabbing of Captain Yossarian by an unknown assailant that opens the film. The movie is as much a snapshot of the lives of the large crew of pilots and officers that make up Yossarian’s division as it is a scathing satire of the senselessness and futility of war. We see the enterprising and ambitious Lt. Milo Minderbinder (Jon Voigt) as he trades away half of the base’s goods to make everyone rich (although he gets many killed in the process). You meet Capt. Nately (Art Garfunkel) who’s in love with an Italian prostitute. There’s the seemingly stable Capt. Aarfy Aardvark (Charles Grodin) who reveals a darker side. And a multitude of other big, or soon to be big name actors, including Anthony Perkins, Orson Welles (Othello), Martin Sheen, and a super young Bob Balaban (Gosford Park).
My feelings toward the acting in the film are a little complicated, particularly in regards to the lead performance from Alan Arkin. He’s a little over-the-top and not always in that good Jack Nicholson way. There are plenty of moments where Yossarian is confronted with the insanity of his condition that Alan Arkin channels the sense of hopelessness and futile indignation that any man would have in that situation. But, there are also plenty of times (especially early in the film) where he just seems to be hamming it up. There’s a moment where Orson Welles’ General Dreedle brings his wife to a meeting where all of the men collectively lose their shit over how attractive she is, and Arkin’s moaning and panting is just cartoonish. But, for the most part, he sticks to a believable mode of acting and one can only wish that he had stayed there the whole film.
And if you couldn’t tell from that list of supporting actors earlier, the film has some seriously heavy hitters in its ranks. Sadly, the Orson Welles in this film is late-career balloon Orson Welles so he was certainly past his prime as a performer (or artist period). Thankfully, though, the rest of the cast was eager and in peak condition. One of the real, pleasant surprises was the performance from the baby-faced and naturally talented Art Garfunkel. He should have done more acting. This is also easily the earliest roles that I can remember seeing either Bob Balaban or Martin Sheen and they both brought something energetic and truthful to the table. But, of course, the real scene-stealers from the supporting cast was the greedy but not malicious Jon Voigt as Milo and the sensitive and conflicted Anthony Perkins as the camp chaplain.
Catch-22 is without question one of the darkest comedies that you’ll ever watch. The humor here is even more pitch-black than Fight Club (though Fight Club is a better movie). Here is a film that makes a mockery of the military bureaucracy, the competency of high-ranking officers, and the need for war in the first place. In one scene, Yossarian’s squadron is about to bomb a town devoid of any actual strategic value to the U.S. and he decides at the last minute to drop their bombs over the ocean rather than kill civilians for no reason. And for his insubordination, he gets a medal so that the military doesn’t have to look bad. And even though he accepts it bare-ass naked, the high officers don’t punish him because they honestly don’t know what to do in the face of a man who is truly beginning to lose his mind.
Catch-22 has its share of flaws, most notably an opening 20 minutes that confused the hell out of me (although perhaps it will all make more sense during a later viewing now that I know what was really happening), but when the film really begins to assert itself as a darkly comic satire of the horrors and stupidity of war, it shines like few other films. And the extended sequence that serves as the film’s turning point where Yossarian confronts the culmination of all of the greed and incompetence that has occurred thus far is one of the most brilliant bits of political satire I’ve ever seen. And while the film can’t maintain that high a level of insight for its entire duration, it is a fantastic reminder of all of the great counter-culture literature and cinema that were coming out of the 1960s and early 1970s. War is hell but Catch-22 reminds you that it can be both horrific and hilarious.
Final Score: A-