Screenplay : Buck Henry (based on the novel by Joseph Heller)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1970
Stars : Alan Arkin (Yossarian), Martin Balsam (Colonel Cathcart), Richard Benjamin (Major Danby), Arthur Garfunkel (Nately), Jack Gilford (Doc Daneeka), Buck Henry (Colonel Korn), Bob Newhart (Major Major), Anthony Perkins (Chaplain Tappman), Paula Prentiss (Nurse Duckett), Martin Sheen (Dobbs), Jon Voight (Milo Minderbinder), Orson Welles (General Dreedle)
The decade of the 1970s, which is generally considered to be one of the most vibrant and creative periods of American filmmaking, was bookended by two enormous, challenging, high-budget experimental films about war made by successful, established directors who almost lost their careers in the process. The decade ended in 1979 with Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now, which retold Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness in Vietnam. Although it was a disastrous production, Coppola emerged triumphant in the end with a surreal masterpiece that shared the Palm d'Or at that year's Cannes Film Festival.
The same cannot be said for Catch-22, Mike Nichols' ambitious take on Joseph Heller's blackly comedic 1961 antiwar novel, that opened the 1970s. The film, which is a caustic satire on the absurdity of war, had the distinct misfortune of not only being ahead of its time (thus confounding critics and audiences alike), but also being released after Robert Altman's M*A*S*H, which was released that same year to near-unanimous critical acclaim and huge box-office returns. When Catch-22 finally debuted in theaters, it was too long, too complicated, too grim, and too similar in thematic content to M*A*S*H to get out the audiences it required. So, it sank like a stone.
It shouldn't have, though. Or, at least, no one could have predicted that it would bomb when the film went into production. It was based on a popular cult novel that predated the counterculture, and Mike Nichols was one of the hottest directors in Hollywood at the time, having being largely responsible for revolutionizing American film with Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966) and The Graduate (1967), for which he had won the Best Director's Oscar. He was a man who could do no wrong, which is probably why he thought he could pull off Catch-22, which many thought to be unfilmable. Yet, he brought in screenwriter Buck Henry (who also cowrote The Graduate) to adapt it, and assembled an amazing cast of comedians, established character actors, and up-and-coming young talent.
The result is not a masterpiece, but it is a brilliant failure, a film that is as interesting for what it tried to accomplish as it is for what it did. Told in nonlinear fashion with dream sequences, flashbacks, and an overall atmosphere of slightly surrealistic unreality, Catch-22 is a film with a unique, unforgettable texture that many who saw it in 1970 simply didn't get. Ostensibly a black comedy, it's only sporadically funny, and it's certainly not an easy film to digest the first time around, with its seemingly inscrutable mixture of slapstick and word-play comedy with long moments of solemn drama and sudden outbursts of unexpected and often graphic violence, which is played both for laughs and for shock value. The film is probably best explained by the dictionary definition of "Catch-22," which was added to the English language following the publication of Heller's novel: "any paradox in law, regulations, or practice that makes one a victim of its provisions no matter what one does."
The story takes place on an American air base in the Mediterranean in 1944. There is no real plot per se, just a series of nonsensical events and incidents that are loosely strung together by the cast of eccentric characters. The main character is Captain Yossarian (Alan Arkin), a bombardier who is the perennial outsider because he seems to be the only person on the base who isn't crazy, even though everyone else thinks he is. After three years and 35 missions, he feels he's ready to be rotated, but Colonel Cathcart (Martin Balsam) keeps raising the number of missions required before rotation, guaranteeing that none of the men will ever be able to leave.
One of the more coherent plot threads involves Milo Minderbinder (Jon Voight), an officer who comes up with the idea of forming a "syndicate" called M&M, which introduces the principles of supply-and-demand economics and capitalistic profit making into the military (it is here that the film was most ahead of its time, as this plays largely as a critique of the privatization of traditionally public programs). M&M reaches ludicrous proportions as Milo spends more time swapping commodities with interest groups all over the world (including the Germans and Italians), often compromising the war effort in the process. M&M's slogan, "What's good for M&M is good for the world," is a parody of libertarian free-market idealism, and it all comes crashing down when Milo has to make a deal with the Germans to bomb his own air force base in order to get rid of a glut of unsellable cotton.
Much of the film's comedy is built around absurd word play, especially the continual emergence of "catches" in every situation. The titular "Catch-22" explains why Yossarian can never be grounded. As explained by Doc Daneeka (Jack Gilford), he can only ground Yossarian if he's crazy. However, Yossarian has to ask to be grounded. But, in doing so, he proves that he's not crazy because only a sane man would want to avoid death. Thus, a circle of absurd logic is constructed to ensure that no one can avoid his death in the sky, as long as Cathcart keeps pouring on the missions.
There is also a classic scene in which Major Major (Bob Newhart), who has been suddenly promoted from doing laundry to being squadron commander, explains that he doesn't want to see anyone in his office. People can come see him, but only in his office, and only when he's not there. Scenes like this are wonderfully written and expertly performed in long takes that resemble Marx Brothers' routines played out against the grim, fatalistic chaos of war.
Nichols plays with these scenes, allowing them to create an air of reckless, perplexing comedy that he then consciously undermines with dramatic sequences that remind us of the severity of war. This is most apparent in a flashback sequence that is scattered in fragments throughout the film, showing Yossarian dealing with a wounded young gunner while airborne. These scenes are shot in a kind of dream-like haze, overexposed and slightly off-kilter. Much of the rest of the film is conventionally beautiful, with long takes and wide shots that emphasize the breadth and scale of the project.
Yet, Nichols continually makes unorthodox decisions that increase the level of the film's difficulty and add to its purposeful absurdity. He often privileges visuals over coherence, and as a result some of the narrative is difficult to follow. He also leaves out, with the exception of two scenes, any extradiegetic music, which usually functions to help guide the viewer's emotions. Instead, Nichols' leaves the viewers in a kind of void, which allows them to decide for themselves what it all means, which is no easy task.
Catch-22 is a film that truly requires multiple viewings for the whole story to sink in and all the nuances and details to emerge. It never quite comes together as a whole no matter how many times you've seen it, but that may be part of its power. Like the insanity of war that it satirizes, Catch-22 is ultimately impossible to understand, explain, or defend completely.
|Audio|| Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround |
Dolby 1.0 Monaural
|Languages||English (5.1, 1.0), French (1.0)|
|Supplements|| Audio commentary by director Mike Nichols and Steven Soderbergh|
Original theatrical trailer
| The new anamorphic transfer of Catch-22 is overall very good, although it is sometimes a bit hit and miss. Some scenes look absolutely gorgeous, while others tend to be too grainy and lacking in detail, although they are thankfully few and far between. The color palette of Catch-22 is intentionally low-key, with an emphasis on browns, tans, and blacks. Black levels tend to be fairly solid throughout, although some of the darkest scenes tend to be a bit murky. The transfer must have been quite difficult because cinematographer David Watkin (Out of Africa) used a complicated lighting scheme, relying heavily on natural sunlight and often allowing entire sections of the frame to be overexposed. These scenes come out quite well, as long as you bear in mind that they are intentionally too bright. |
The film is presented for the first time on home video in its proper 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio, which is crucial because the film is composed primarily of long takes and wide shots that rely absolutely on the widescreen frame for their scope and composition. Those who have only seen this film in pan-and-scan video versions need to take a second look, not only because the scope is so severely diminished in P&S, but because the introduction of so many phantom cuts to make the dialogue scenes intelligible completely disrupts the film's pacing and rhythm.
|The soundtrack has been remixed in Dolby Digital 5.1 surround, and the results are very good, given that they were working with an original monaural soundtrack that is 31 years old. The opening sequence is a great example, as the credits roll over complete silence, then we hear engines begin to sputter to life, and the next thing we know, the air is filled with roar of dozens of planes taxiing down the runway. However, each plane has a distinct sound, and the soundtrack uses creative imaging and directionality across the front soundstage to create the aural illusion of these planes passing in front of us. As there is almost no music, the soundtrack is dedicated entirely to dialogue and sound effects. Dialogue is primarily front-heavy, and the surround speakers are only used for flying or battle sequences. Some of the dialogue is difficult to hear because the actors are shouting over the roar of plane engines, but that is an intentional part of the sound design.|
| In the screen-specific audio commentary, director Mike Nichols discusses the film with Steven Soderbergh, recent Best Director Oscar winner for Traffic. One can see why Soderbergh would appreciate Catch-22 because it is exactly the kind of ambitious, experimental filmmaking on which he has built his own career. The commentary starts out a little slow, and I began to worry that it wasn't going to amount to much. However, Nichols and Soderbergh pick up a rhythm as the film progresses. Soderbergh acts primarily as an interviewer, asking Nichols questions about the production, how certain special effects were achieved, and the truthfulness of various rumors and stories he has heard over the years (the best involves Nichols' assertion that the scene with Martin Balsam talking to Anthony Perkins while on the toilet was based on a habit of movie mogul Louis B. Mayer). Soderbergh, who acts as he own cinematographer on most of his films, seems especially fascinated by the visual quality of Catch-22, and he and Nichols spend a lot of time discussing the lighting and cinematography. |
Also included on the disc is a brief stills gallery of pictures of the cast and an original theatrical trailer, all of which is presented in anamorphic widescreen.