Time has been kind to Mike Nichols’ film of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. At the time, it was of course a notorious flop, the first in Nichols’ previously spotless portfolio. Every director gets too big for his or her britches after a few successes and gambles everything on a lame horse. Except that Catch-22, decades away from all the expectation and buzz attached to this prestigious event film, ends up looking better than a lot of modern movies that win Oscars and make zillions.
The emboldened Nichols, with exactly two character studies under his belt, was crazy enough to think he could take command of a huge production based on a generally acknowledged masterpiece of satire, with elaborate flight sequences that would’ve stymied a seasoned war-flick director, and a cast full of veterans and tyros with wildly different styles. The hubris Michael Cimino drew upon to make Heaven’s Gate has nothing on the balls — or stupidity — required of Nichols to show up on the Mexico set of Catch-22 every day for six months. He was in way over his head, just like Yossarian (Alan Arkin), the WWII bombardier obsessed with finding a way to get out of flying more missions. Catch-22 ends up being a gigantic metaphor for the self-crucifixion every director endures while making such a folly as this.
But what a strange and mesmerizing folly. I’ve loved and hated Catch-22 over the years, but its eventual appearance on DVD, with its epic widescreen scope finally restored (along with a grisly revelation entirely cropped out of the previous VHS image), was the deciding factor for me. This is an eerily beautiful movie, though its color scheme never strays far from military browns and grays. Those are real B-52 Mitchell bombers you see taking off in that lengthy scene, and their sheer mass and power are almost oppressively formidable. (Today, it’d all be done with CGI and you’d get no sense whatsoever of the hefty death-dealing monstrosity of these planes.) The production feels authentic, particularly the nightlife of Pianosa, which owes more than a little to Fellini.
Nichols and screenwriter Buck Henry (who also appears as the disdainful Colonel Korn, forever chomping on a cigarette holder á la Hunter S. Thompson) shuffle the deck of Heller’s absurdist characters, discarding quite a few but holding onto some. It was truly the era of the All-Star Cast, and Catch-22 has one for the ages: Orson Welles, flattening everyone with a raised eyebrow of contempt; Martin Balsam and Anthony Perkins, together again ten years after Psycho; an impossibly young and histrionic Martin Sheen; nervous Bob Newhart and Richard Benjamin; the recessive fuzzy-head twins Art Garfunkel and Bob Balaban (who don’t even pretend to act like 1940s servicemen); casually slimy Charles Grodin (“I only raped her once,” says his Aarfy after chucking a woman out a window); and, perhaps most impressively, Jon Voight as the stunningly opportunistic Milo Minderbinder, who evolves — or devolves — from a chattering huckster to a cold-eyed lord of industry:
Milo: [He] died a wealthy man, Yossarian. He had over sixty shares in the syndicate.
Yossarian: What difference does that make? He’s dead.
Milo: Then his family will get it.
Yossarian: He didn’t have time to have a family.
Milo: Then his parents will get it.
Yossarian: They don’t need it, they’re rich.
Milo: Then they’ll understand.
The novel wasn’t so much Heller’s broadside against war or even the military as his piss-take at bureaucracy and corporate culture. Heller, who served in WWII as a bombardier and in an ad agency as a copywriter, filtered his war experience through the Peter Principle. So in Catch-22, the war, we’re told, is being fought to move product and make stockholders happy. And this is the good war, the one fought by the Greatest Generation, the one generally agreed to be necessary — Heller scoffs at all that, and the movie does too. Nichols and Henry make Yossarian unstuck in time, like Billy Pilgrim in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five; the structure feels anecdotal and even arbitrary, studded with surreal nightmares and flashbacks. A recurring motif has Yossarian prompted to help the grievously wounded gunner Snowden, each flashback bringing us a little closer to the truth.
“Cold,” Snowden keeps repeating, and the film goes cold as well. Odd, startling events like the fate of Hungry Joe and the bombing of the airbase ordered by Milo himself remind us that this is very much a 1970 film, with casual gore and nudity and profanity and a fleeting glimpse of a blowjob. Slapstick — Bob Newhart’s fake mustache, Richard Benjamin collapsing to the floor after Orson Welles orders him taken out and shot — consorts uneasily with fire and blood and perversity. Glenn Erickson of DVD Savant referred to Catch-22 as “a creepy horror film,” and I know what he means; there is an eerie quietude to such scenes as the Snowden flashbacks and a bit with Bob Balaban obliquely revealing his master plan while repairing a mini-stove.
Why does the movie begin at the end? Why does the sound of engines smother the dialogue in the first scene? Audiences must’ve been baffled by Catch-22, and it’s an awkward sandwich to get one’s mouth around: soggy here, sharp there. But it has a bizarre power that can’t be overlooked. It’s Nichols’ Apocalypse Now, saying more about a young director who bit off more than he could chew than about anything else, filtered through dismay not at the corporate ethos but at the Hollywood ethos. Nichols turned the movie into a bomb he dropped right on its own studio, tossing aside every single trope of war movies and every other genre. It’s a massive oddity, a radical satirical farce that could only have been financed by a major corporation. And for all its flaws, it’s still one of the best things Mike Nichols has done.