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Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Review: Catch-22 (1970)

* * *

Director: Mike Nichols
Starring: Alan Arkin

There's always a catch and catch-22, with its cold, ruthless, paradoxical simplicity is the worst catch of all. Only pilots who are crazy will be grounded and absolved of flying more missions, but they have to ask to be grounded. Any pilot who would ask to be excused from flying more missions is clearly not crazy and, therefore, will not be grounded. It's enough to drive a person crazy. Just ask Yossarian (Alan Arkin).

Adapted from Joseph Heller's novel of the same name, Catch-22 is an absurdist war story that is half comedy and half drama. Like the book, the film is told as a series of smaller, connected stories that paint a picture of the impossibility of Yossarian's situation and the ridiculousness of war in general. He's under the command of blustering, status craving Col. Cathcart (Martin Balsam), who keeps raising the number of missions each man is required to fly at exactly the moment when Yossarian comes close to completing the former requirement. He hates flying missions because, when he does, people try to kill him. It's a perfectly reasonable complaint, but no one will listen.

When not figuring out ways to avoid having to fly missions, Yossarian enjoys brief romances with Nurse Duckett (Paula Prentiss) and Luciana (Olimpia Carlisi), and has various adventures with his friends Dobbs (Martin Sheen), Nately (Art Garfunklel), Orr (Bob Balaban), McWatt (Peter Bonerz), Aarfy (Charles Grodin), and mess officer Milo Minderbinder (Jon Voight), who is perhaps the greatest capitalist who ever lived (and if you're unfamiliar with why, I recommend reading the book because I couldn't even come close to explaining the workings of Minderbinder's massive and lucrative operation). Yossarian has been in crisis ever since witnessing the dying moments of a gunner named Snowden, but things grow even more bleak as his friends die off one by one, leaving him feeling increasingly isolated and desperate. To make matters worse, when he finally gets a chance to go home, there's a catch.

A novel like Catch-22 is difficult to adapt. Its tone and prose are so precise, so perfectly crafted that transporting that to a film adaptation is next to impossible. Director Mike Nichols, working with a screenplay from Buck Henry (who also co-stars as Col. Korn), attempts this massive undertaking but doesn't totally succeed. It's a funny movie to be sure (and serious, when it needs to be), but I found that it ultimately lacked that sense of community that exists in the novel. We don't really get to know any of the characters other than Yossarian - and several from the novel have been excised altogether, including, sadly, Major --- de Coverly, my favourite minor character - and because of that the film's many deaths don't really have the impact that they ought to. Further, the film relies a great deal on the viewer's familiarity with the book, an element which I ultimately don't know that the film could have avoided given how much has to be condensed in order to make the story viable as a feature film.

All that being said, I liked Catch-22 quite a bit. I think Arkin makes a great Yossarian and of the supporting cast I particularly enjoyed the performances by Anthony Perkins as the Chaplain and Bob Newhart as Major Major Major Major. I also liked some of the minor touches that Nichols brought to the film and thought that he guided the abrupt change in tone which happens at about the half-way mark (when Yossarian's companions being dying off) very well. The film version of Catch-22 doesn't reach the heights of its source but it's an enjoyable film and a nice companion to the novel.


John said...

I think you capture what was good and the bad in this film. As you mention the novel was difficult to adapt with so many characters that were not fleshed out in the film. Still I think Nichols and Henry captured the flavor of the novel if not the full dish (ha!). I actually read this book just before I was drafted and sent to Vietnam. I took the book with me and read it again while over there. Somehow the absurdity of the novel grounded me from the insanity of the situation I found myself in. I still have the same beat up paperback copy in my bookshelf! Arkin made a fantastic Yossarian!

Sam Turner said...

Great article. I own this but haven't watched it in a while. I love Heler's book which is perfectly structured (the location of the much analysed 'serious' chapter in Rome is spot on) but also frequently hilarious. I remember feeling the same as you when I watched this - it's not bad, but inevitably, it can't live up to the novel.