Synopsis: Mike Nichols superbly directed this cinematic adaptation of Joseph Heller’s scathing black comedy about a small group of flyers in the Mediterranean in 1944. There are winners and losers, opportunists and survivors. Separately and together they are nervous, frightened, often profane and sometimes pathetic. Almost all are a little crazy. Catch-22 is an anti-war satire of epic proportions.
eyelights: the absurdist humour. the ensemble cast. the plane crash set-piece. the impressive, explosive finale.
eyesores: Alan Arkin’s lack of spark.
“Ok, let me see if I’ve got this straight. In order to be grounded, I’ve got to be crazy. And I must be crazy to keep flying. But if I ask to be grounded, that means I’m not crazy anymore, and I have to keep flying.”
Mike Nichol’s ‘Catch-22’ is a satirical anti-war picture from 1970. Based on the Arthur Heller novel, it is set in the Mediterranean during World War II. It tells the story of Captain John Yossarian (Alan Arkin), who is desperately trying to go back home.
The problem is that Yossarian has to do a certain amount of dangerous bombing runs to get his leave and that Colonel Cathcart keeps raising the pilots’ quota. Yossarian, at the end of his rope, discovers that there’s little hope of ever leaving.
The film was a critical and commercial failure at the time of its release, but has grown considerably in popularity through the years, attaining a cult status. In fact, I had heard about this film for decades before ever taking the time to watch it.
Frankly, I have no idea how this picture wasn’t a smash hit upon release: it has a phenomenal cast (everyone’s in this! I recognized almost everyone – and the cast is huge!), absurdist humour, impressive set-pieces and it came out while the Vietnam war was still raging.
Heck, Robert Altman’s ‘MASH’ came out mere months before and it blew the roof off!
I have to admit that ‘Catch-22’ is a grower. The first time I watched it, I wasn’t all that enthused with it; I found it a bit bland, one-note. I might even have been bored. But that may have been a case of inflated expectations, because I quite loved it afterwards.
What makes it so terrific, aside for its extensive cast (look it up!), is the amount of absurdist elements thrown into – the kind of material that Monty Python thrived on back in their glory days. It’s all in the dialogues and situations, which are ripe with nonsense.
Take, for instance, the title’s infamous “catch-22”.
Yossarian consults with Dr. Daneeka about a colleague of his and discovers that the only way to be grounded is to be mentally unfit. Except that someone asking to be grounded couldn’t possibly be unfit, so he won’t be grounded. But you have be unfit to do the job.
There’s just no way to win in that bureaucrazy (sic).
So Yossarian starts to manifest peculiar behaviour in other contexts, like showing up for General Dreedle’s arrival buck naked. But no one pays him any mind. They either dismiss his behaviour or ignore it all together, as though this were to be expected.
There’s also a subplot about Milo, the mess officer, coming up with all sorts of leftfield ways to raise funds, using the base’s equipment for barter. With the help of the Colonel, he turns it into a full-blown operation, wringing as much profit as he can from it.
The problem is that he’s doing it on the backs of the men. For instance, Yossarian first gets wind of this ploy when all their parachutes disappear out of their packs. Eventually this all gets completely out of hand and Milo is forced to make tough decisions.
This subplot is a total satire of unbridled capitalism. It takes the entrepreneurial spirit to its extreme, where no loyalty, no reason, no shame can get in the way of the deal, of making a profit. To me, this is one of the strongest, most hilarious aspects of ‘Catch-22’.
But even that is merged with the picture’s anti-war message.
There’s this terrific scene between Milo and the Colonel talking about their business deals while a plane flies by them and crashes. They are unfazed, as though it never happened, as though it doesn’t matter. It’s both a hilarious and amazing scene to behold, because it was all done in one shot.
Another similarly striking scene is towards the end, when the base is under attack – by their own men (long story… but well worth seeing). The scope of that scene is breathtaking, with massive explosions going off in the background as the characters talk. Again, all done in one take.
Insane. Just like the picture’s characters. And absolutely ridiculous, when one knows why this is happening.
It’s simply impossible not to laugh at the madness taking place in this picture. The only reason I could see why the film was underappreciated is that it’s perhaps too intellectual; while there are some sight gags and simpler humour (such as the full-body cast patient bit), it’s mostly abstract stuff.
In fact the structure of the picture is slightly abstract. It mixes past and present, reality and delirium in a semi non-linear fashion. I remember that, the first time I saw it, I wasn’t entirely sure what was what, and it took a little while to wrap my mind around the picture.
It starts right from the top, with a calm opening featuring just credits and no music. Then we see the beautiful Mediterranean scenery and loud war machines break the silence. It’s so loud that you can’t hear the dialogues, which makes you think either your speakers are broken or that the print is bad.
But it turns out that this is intentional: we are not meant to know what is being discussed until the very end, when the picture takes us right back to that scene and finally allows us to hear the exchange. But we don’t know this at the onset, and it’s slightly disquieting.
And even to this day, I’m still not a hundred percent sure where the whole bit showing Yossarian tending to an injured pilot fits in. Did it happen for real? Is it part of his delirium while he’s in the hospital? And, either way, how does that fit in with the rest of the picture?
But it doesn’t deter from my enjoyment of ‘Catch-22’. Granted, I do enjoy abstract cinema, and that may be the reason why, but I suspect that my appreciation comes mostly from the outrageous way in which it tackles the madness of war and excessive capitalism.
‘Catch-22’ not only gives one food for thought, but it makes one laugh at the hopelessly nonsensical side of it all. And, given the seriousness of the subject matter, that’s quite laudable – very few motion pictures manage to succeed nearly as well as this one does.
Date of viewing: November 1, 2014