What a shock and thrill to sit down at my DVD player in 2006 and see a movie that, while flawed, contains actual ideas, an actual philosophy, and an actual point-of-view.

It’s not perfect, but it’s consistently entertaining and by the end of it, it produces an effect that’s hard to shake off.

The novel, of course, is a monument, full of broad, Dickensian characters, shuffled-time elements, and dozens of plot threads, and a satire to boot, so it’s especially tricky.  But director Mike Nichols and writer Buck Henry would seem to be the perfect team for the job, if anybody could do it.

It’s probably a losing proposition to try to fit a novel as well-known, well-liked and ambitious as Catch-22 was in 1970 into a two-hour movie.   A really expensive, 12-hour miniseries might get the novel across better.  There was a TV show in 1973 (no doubt capitalizing on the popularity of M*A*S*H), starring none other than Richard Dreyfuss as Yossarian, which probably nobody but me watched for the brief time it was on the air.

But the problem, as it always is with satire, is tone, and the tone here wavers quite a bit.  The novel wants to say very serious things in a very funny way, and the most outrageous things on the page still come off as human, wheras if you stage them, those same things become broad, obvious and belabored.

Take, for example, Martin Balsam, one of my favorite actors ever, as Colonel Cathcart.  Cathcart is a wonderful character, a dense, vain, murderous dolt.  The problem is, that’s how Balsam plays him.  He plays him as though he’s an idiot, keeps indicating that the man is quite vain, blustering and stupid.  To play a stupid man in a position of power, in my opinion, one has to play down the stupidity, play down the insecurity and bluster.  A stupid man in a position of power would do his best to keep from giving himself away, but Balsam lets Cathcart give himself away all over the place.

I think this choice, and others like it, are meant to make the movie “funny,” but they have the opposite effect.  The humor is in the ideas and in the dialogue.  If you play it too broadly, it both kills the humor and diminishes the ideas.  The wonderful, terrible thing about Cathcart is that he’s a blustering idiot who is going to get every man in his squadron killed, and all he’s concerned about is his image,  career and publicity.  But we never really get the serious side of the character, he remains a clown throughout.  Buck Henry as Colonel Corn is better, razor-sharp in his delivery, but still a little broad for me, not quite human.

Orson Welles is sufficienty grave as General Dreedle, but Austin Pendleton is goofy and overplayed in the exact same scenes, like he’s been digitally dropped in from another movie.

A young Richard Libertini is splendid, looking like Bronson Pinchot.

Some scenes work brilliantly, like the one where Bob Balaban (Bob Balaban!) as Orr tinkers with a stove and tells Yossarian to fly with him.  It’s quiet, detailed, funny and just a little bit insane.

And then there’s the plot.  Which there’s either too much of, or not enough of, or both at once.  You have things like Bob Newhart as Major Major Major Major, one of the most beloved characters of the novel, who has no impact on the plot of the film at all.  Yet there he is, taking up a good six or seven minutes of screen time in a broad, surreal turn where he puts on a mustache and talks nonsense to Norman Fell (Norman Fell!) as the portrait on his office wall changes from Roosevelt to Churchill to Stalin, and I go “Huh?”  It just seems sometimes like some scenes were included from the novel because the filmmakers knew there would be a demand for those scenes, not because they would contribute to the movie.

Anyway, for some reason Dr. Strangelove works, M*A*S*H works and Fight Club works but this doesn’t work.

Is it the budget?  The production design is detailed and elaborate, and several of the action beats are spectacular and awe-inspiring.  But budget never helped comedy, and especially not satire, where attitude and approach are, to my mind, more important.  Get the attitude right and you can perform it in front of painted backdrops.

Milo is a great character, a big enough character to have his own novel in my opinion, and Jon Voight is mostly good in the part.  There’s a scene in the movie that I remember from the book,* but it took me until today’s viewing to fully appreciate its point.

Milo makes a deal with the Germans to bomb his own airbase, part of his complicated “syndicate,” a little corporation he’s created to make himself rich during the war, a little private corporation which, theoretically, will make everyone wealthy but which, of course, makes only Milo wealthy.  Not unlike our friends at Enron, with similar results.

In the movie, Milo’s deal with the Germans ends up killing Nately (a radiant and splendid Art Garfunkel [Art Garfunkel!]) and Yossarian gets quite angry with him about that.  He catches up to Milo and screams at him about killing Nately, and the scene goes something like:

Yossarian: You killed Nately!  He’s dead!
Milo: Nately was very lucky, he owned sixty shares of the syndicate, he died a wealthy man.
Y: What good will that do him?  He’s dead!
M: Then it will go to his family.
Y: He was too young to have a family!
M: Then it will go to his parents.
Y: His parents don’t need it, they’re already wealthy!
M: Then they’ll understand.

Voight delivers that last line with chilling calm and precision, and suddenly the whole movie comes into focus.  This war, and this story, are all about the capitalist imperative, and Nately died not for his country but for that imperative.  His life was worth a certain amount of money, and when the amount of money available rose to a certain amount, it was no longer necessary to keep Nately alive.  And if Nately’s parents are wealthy, they’ll have already made those calculations in their heads many times over in their lives.

*Turns out my memory is faulty, the exchange is not in the book.  It was written by Buck Henry.

Anyway, the movie is about more than just that, but that’s the moment when it stops becoming hijinx and starts meaning something.  In some ways, the movie (and the book) are about a state of mind, a way of looking at things, and the fact that it’s set on an island in the Mediterranean during World War II is incidental.  It’s a story about the way of the world coming into focus for a young man, and in this case the young man was Joseph Heller during World War II, much as it was for Norman Mailer and Kurt Vonnegut and James Jones and Saul Bellow and numerous other Great American Novelists of that generation.

After the movie, I asked my wife what happened to great novels, why there was a whole generation of WWII novelists who really had a handle on these things, and why later generations do not.  Because it shouldn’t matter that there’s a world war going on, the same things should matter to and electrify each generation in turn.

And my wife said “Well, for the ’80s it was Bright Lights, Big City.”  And I nodded and said, “and for the 90s it was Fight Club.”  And then I bemoaned the diminishing importance of the novel.

Well, Hollywood got one of them right.
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3 Responses to “Catch-22”
  1. craigjclark says:

    One of the best things about the Catch-22 DVD is the commentary by Mike Nichols and Steven Soderbergh. I’ve seriously considered picking it up (especially now that it sells for $10) just because I know I’ll want to listen to that commentary again at some point in the future.

    • Todd says:

      I just watched it again with the commentary track, and it’s certainly worth it. Nichols talks frankly about not really understanding the movie while he was shooting it, mentions specifically about how they never got the attitude for the commanding officers right, and talks at length about the Yossarian/Milo scene, which seems so key to the movie’s concept, but which is, shockingly, not in the novel. Written by Buck Henry, it was the one scene where Joseph Heller said that he wishes he had said it.

  2. popebuck1 says:

    The movie illustrates why they said the book couldn’t be filmed – but it’s so full of good stuff, hiding here and there, that you can’t just dismiss it. I love the conversation between Garfunkel and the old Italian man, where the Italian makes the case for surrendering and living to fight (or surrender) another day. I think it’s verbatim from the book, but regardless whether it is or not, it just chills me every time I see it.

    Interestingly enough, George Roy Hill directed not one, but TWO fairly successful adaptations of “unfilmable” books: Slaughterhouse-5 and The World According to Garp. Both of them are problematic and leave out a lot plotwise from their respective books, but I think both of them genuinely capture the tone and magic of the books, just the same.