Catch-22 (1970): A nightmare in the best kind of way

posted 1/30/09 on 2009: A Blog Odyssey

I know what you’re thinking.

You’re thinking, Gee, why’s this Jeff fella writing a DVD review for a movie that was not recently re-released and has hardly a vestige of relevance to anything coming out today? I guess you’d be right. I could make the excuse that it’s an anti-war movie, and we’re in a couple of real shitty wars at the moment. I could say it’s by the same director (Mike Nichols) who made Charlie Wilson’s War, a semi-recent movie. Or that Jon Voight acts in it, and this is a glimpse into a better time in his career when he wasn’t taking parts in lame movies like Four Christmases and National Treasure 2.

But I’m not going to make excuses. I’m writing this review because I just watched Catch-22, I enjoyed it immensely, and I want to tell you, dear reader, about it right now at 5:45 a.m.


THE FILM

There’s no shortage of films about the pointless insanity that was Vietnam. You’d be hard-pressed now to find someone who could really look at the whole experience and say that laying waste to the jungle with tons and tons of napalm was really worth it to prevent the domino effect.

But criticizing World War II? Hell, there was Hitler. To write a satire of that outing in world history is unAmerican!

Yeah, well, tell that to Joseph Heller, the author of Catch-22 (published in 1961, now ranked by countless organizations and publications as one of America’s greatest literary works). He’d tell you we weren’t quite gentlemen in that affair, either.

Nichols directed and Buck Henry wrote the 1970 film adaptation (they also teamed up on 1967’s The Graduate) that stars Alan Arkin as troubled protagonist Captain John Yossarian. The guy just can’t seem to catch a break. He’s spent three years in occupied Italy and conducted nearly 40 missions as an Air Force bombardier without being rotated out.

As Colonel Cathcart (Martin Balsam) and his chain-smoking assistant, Lieutenant Colonel Korn (also Buck Henry), jack up the number of required missions before rotation to 50, then 75, Yossarian and his friends begin to run out of ways to cope with the utter absurdity of the situation. Cathcart has no problem sending his men to bomb a little Italian town with no troops and no industry — only civilians and a monastery — just because.

He shows his true colors in a truly bizarre scene when First Lieutenant Milo Minderbinder (Voight) meets up with him to discuss how the Air Force as a whole can benefit from selling tomatoes for a profit in the Mediterranean and trading the airmen’s silk parachutes for cotton. Here we are introduced to Minderbinder’s very own war profiteering corporation: M & M Enterprises. Intrigued by the idea, Cathcart hops in a jeep with Minderbinder as a jet crashes and burns on the adjacent runway. The two think nothing of it — don’t even glance at the at the smoldering plane, much less flinch in horror.

The film is full of incidences like these where the bureaucracy responsible for keeping soldiers safe and fighting efficiently for a just cause places profits over lives.

While the innocent, childlike Captain Nately (Art Garfunkel!) tells himself everything’s OK because he’s just serving his country, Captain Major (Bob Newhart) accepts his random promotion to Major Major despite never having flown a plane, and Chaplain Tappman (Anthony Perkins) continues his ministry despite his own shaky faith, Yossarian refuses to let the war wash over him. Yet even as he firms himself against the lies and the propaganda, he feels his sanity slipping.

But the doctor refuses to send Yossarian home on grounds of insanity. Why? Because there’s a catch (catch-22, to be precise): if he really were insane, he wouldn’t have the wits to know it.

This type of back-and-forth, “Who’s on First” circular logic used to rationalize military policy, coupled with the oddball narrative structure and shockingly abrupt acts of violence, makes Catch-22 feel like a gigantic bad dream. But in a good way.


SPECIAL FEATURES

The copy Blockbuster Total Access sent me had only the most bare bones of features. There’s a director commentary, a photo gallery of the actors and Mexico set, and the trailer embedded above. But don’t worry . . . The last thing you’ll think about once you finish Catch-22 is whether or not it has decent special features.


HIGHLIGHTS

There are so many, but any time Voight appears onscreen is a great moment. Minderbinder is such a scumbag, every socialist’s caricature of an evil capitalist, the embodiment the world’s powerful who exploit and starve the poor. But he does it with a gentle smile, a cheery demeanor that makes you buy into his character and understand how his ideas intoxicate everyone he meets. He may not be the most trustworthy guy, but you’d be up for having a beer with him. Ahem.


LOWLIGHTS

The film has an admittedly confusing start that may frustrate some. Don’t worry; as the story unfolds, you will get a feel for what’s going on. Sort of.

There are also a few exchanges where the sound is a little funky, like in the very beginning when the roar of planes drowns the dialogue. I guess one could argue that it was intentional, but it’s not the only time you’ll be tempted to turn on subtitles.


VERDICT

See this if you liked Dr. Strangelove (1964) and other such absurdist satires. Or if you are looking for a movie that will make you laugh, make you cringe, and most importantly, challenge you to think.


STATS

Nominated for awards from BAFTA, the Writers Guild of America, and the Laurel Awards
Rated 88% on RottenTomatoes
Running time: 122 minutes
Rated R