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CATCH 22

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Review by Alex Haberstroh

Stars:  Alan Arkin, Martin Balsam, Richard Benjamin, Art Garfunkel, Jack Gilford, Buck Henry, Bob Newhart, Anthony Perkins, Martin Sheen, Jon Voight, Orson Welles
Director:  Mike Nichols
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Surround
Video:  1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Studio:  Paramount
Features:  See Review
Length:  121 minutes
Release Date:  June 19, 2001

“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 asked to be grounded, that means I’m not crazy anymore and I have to keep flying.”   

"That’s the catch!”

“What catch?”

 “Catch-22!”

Film ***

When Joseph Heller’s novel Catch-22 debuted on November 10th, 1962, it not only sent shockwaves through American culture, it also helped to redefine it (adding the title phrase into the vernacular as “a situation in which a desired outcome is impossible to attain because of a set of contradictory rules and conditions.”).  One of the first mainstream anti-war books of its day, it examined the plight of Army fighter pilots on the Mediterranean island of Pianosa during World War II. 

The story’s protagonist, a young bombardier named Yossarian (Arkin), is convinced that thousands of people he doesn’t know are determined to kill him.  Frustrated that Colonel Cathcart (Basalm), his commander, raises the number of required missions every time he gets close to the goal, Yossarian decides to get out of fighting in the war by acting crazy so he can be rotated out of service.   But, as illustrated in many scenes through both the film, and especially the book, the army has developed a system of paradoxical logic called “Catch 22,” which results in its needs being met no matter the circumstances of the individual.  If Yossarian is really crazy he shouldn’t be flying, but the only way he can stop flying is to be grounded, which requires Yossarian asking to be, thus making him sane, and therefore able to fly missions.

After being such a critical success in novel form, the decision was made to turn the novel into a film, prompting director Mike Nichols, hot off his Oscar winning work on The Graduate, as well as a laundry list of respected well known actors and rising stars, to come aboard the project.  With Joseph Heller’s incredible tale, an Oscar winning director, and a talented cast, Catch-22 was assured blockbuster status. 

So what happened?  Many have blamed the release of M*A*S*H* in the same year hurting the later release that year of Catch-22, pointing out that M*A*S*H* is more “audience-friendly” i.e.- funny, and people weren’t willing to waste time and money seeing two films of similar content in such a short span of time. 

So what was it?  Is the film just not that interesting?  Is the acting bad?  Quite the contrary, while both are for the most part top notch (especially Arkin, who accomplishes a dead-on performance as Yossarian), what’s more likely is that Catch-22 just wasn’t meant to be a film. 

Beginning the movie, my expectations were high, having fallen in love with Heller’s darkly comedic novel.  Unfortunately, the film runs up against many problems from the start.  For one, Nichols decides to make his film more surreal than the plainly written novel, filling it with not only with crazy dream sequences that most likely only confuse the hell out of audiences, but also jumps around in the timeline of the story as was later done, but more successfully, in Pulp Fiction.  Second, the film just doesn’t have enough time to flesh out the characters and all the amusing situations that slowly build through the novel, so when the final climax comes, the madness of all those on the base isn’t as richly developed as it was in the novel.  Finally, even though the film has many good actors, it seems that since the film isn’t as long as, say, a miniseries, having every bit part played by a well-known actor only makes the film seem cluttered. 

In the end, what hurt this film the most for me was expecting that it would be as funny and magical as the book, a nearly impossible task.  I’m just hopeful that this might keep something like Catcher in the Rye from being put into film form as well. 

Video ***

The video is generally first-rate, with flesh tones looking right on.  Occasionally black levels suffer slightly in night scenes but, for the most part, the integrity of the black levels and the environments are maintained. 

Audio ***

Like the video, the audio was a pleasant surprise (especially for a film of its age).   From the very opening scene, the sound makes itself known, with the grinding starting of the engines.  Dialogue is generally clear and easily heard for the most part.    

Supplements **1/2

On the whole, an insightful commentary from director Mike Nichols and Steven Soderbergh (Traffic, Erin Brockovich) is included.  I don’t really know why Soderbergh is on the commentary, but he provides some interesting points about the film and keeps Nichols on track.  Also included is a trailer.

Summary:

A film that was generally panned, Catch-22 might be worth a rental if you like brooding war films.