It’s the bane of my literary existence, but I must admit that I have never read Joseph Heller’s seminal novel Catch-22. Please refrain from berating me right now, perhaps deservedly so, because at least I have acknowledged my ignorance. True, I can only take Mike Nichol’s adaptation at face value, but given this film, that still seems worthwhile. I’m not condoning my own failures, but this satirical anti-war film does have two feet to stand on.
It reads like a cast of millions: Alan Arkin, Martin Balsam, Richard Benjamin, Art Garfunkel, Jack Gilford, Buck Henry, Bob Newhart, Anthony Perkins, Paula Prentiss, Martin Sheen, Jon Voight, Bob Balaban, Peter Bonerz, Felice Orlandi, Jack Riley, Marcel Dalio, and even Orson Welles. And in truth, no one character disappoints, because no one character has to carry the brunt of this narrative.
Certainly, Yossarian (Alan Arkin), the disillusioned WWII bombardier, is our protagonist, but he needs people to react to and bounce off of. It’s the likes of Colonel Cathcart (Balsam) and Lt. Colonel Korn (screenwriter Buck Henry) his neurotic superiors and the pragmatic wheeler-dealer Milo Minderbender (Jon Voight) who make him that way.
Their world of bombing missions, valor, medals, and “The Syndicate” are utterly absurd just as they are, but they don’t seem to recognize it. That’s where the satire stems from, the critique of war, and all the wit. It seems like no coincidence that Mike Nichols released this film during the Vietnam Era. Like its compatriot, Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H, it finds a wickedly dark sense of humor in war. Because what is there to do with death and violence, but laugh and try to find some way to grapple with it?
The Chaplain (Anthony Perkins) doesn’t feel like a man of the cloth at all, but a nervously subservient trying to carry out his duties. An agitated laundry officer (Bob Newhart) gets arbitrarily promoted to Squadron Commander, and he ducks out whenever duty calls. Finally, the Chief Surgeon (Jack Gilford) has no power to get Yossarian sent home because as he explains, Yossarian “would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he’d have to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t, he was sane and had to.” This is the mind-bending logic at the core of Catch-22, and it continues to manifest itself over and over again until it is simply too much. It’s a vicious cycle you can never beat.
In fact, each man involved must cope with their duties one way or another oftentimes through prostitution, jokes, or an obsessive almost numb commitment to duty. Yossarian tries all of the above rendezvousing with an Italian beauty and receiving a medal without any clothes on.
But the tonal shift of Catch-22 is important to note because while it can remain absurdly funny for some time, there is a point of no return. Yossarian constantly relives the moments he watched his young comrade die, and Nately (Art Garfunkel) ends up being killed by his own side. It’s a haunting turn and by the second half, the film is almost hollow. But we are left with one giant aerial shot that quickly pulls away from a flailing Yossarian as he tries to feebly escape this insanity in a flimsy lifeboat headed for Sweden. It’s the final exclamation point in this farcical tale.
M*A*S*H certainly deserves a reevaluation, but Catch-22 just might be the best, or at least one of the best, anti-war films of the 1970s. Mike Nichols delivers once more with a wickedly funny indictment of global conflict using a classic of American literature for inspiration.