By Richard Winters
My Rating: 8 out of 10
4-Word Review: The insanities of war.
Having to fly numerous combat air missions has sent Word War II fighter pilot John Yossarian (Alan Arkin) to the brink of insanity. He goes to his unit’s psychiatrist Dr. Daneeka (Jack Gilford) asking him if he can be sent home. The doctor admits that anyone who feels that they are going crazy shouldn’t be flying, but there’s a problem known as ‘Catch-22’, which states that anyone who no longer wants to fly combat missions isn’t crazy but normal and therefore John’s request is denied and he is forced to remain while observing how utterly ridiculous everyone else is, particularly his military superiors, even though they’re considered to be the ‘normal’ ones.
The film is based on the best-selling novel by Joseph Heller, who started writing his novel in 1953 and would only spend 1-hour each day working on it until finally completing it 8 years later. The story is very loosely based on some of his experiences and emotions that he had as a fighter pilot during the war and it’s always nice watching something that was done, no matter how satirical, from an insider’s perspective and his numerous potshots at the nonsense that makes up the military hierarchy could easily be parlayed to anyone who has had to deal with bureaucracy at any level.
Certain changes were made in the novel’s transition to the big-screen, but overall screenwriter Buck Henry does well in bringing the fragmented narrative vibe of the book to the film. I was really impressed with the aerial sequences, which used the B-25 Mitchell and took 6 months to film. The cinematic style was years-ahead-of-its-time as well including having things occur in the background of a scene that has no connection to what the characters in front of the camera are discussing and at times even oblivious to.
The film features many laugh-out-loud segments with my favorite being the part where Yossarian attends a military award ceremony and accepts his medal while being, to the shock of the military brass that is handed out the medal, stark naked. Anthony Perkins, who plays the hopeless chaplain, is also quite funny in a rare, but interesting turn in a comedic role.
One of the things that I didn’t like about the film, although it didn’t bother me quite as much as it did when I first saw the movie many years ago, is the way the tone shifts from being quirky and hilarious at the beginning to somber and serious towards the end. I realize that the novel works in the same way, but the first half of the film successfully balanced the line of exposing the absurdities of war in a comedic vein while still showing the serious consequences without ever getting overwrought, so it’s a shame that the second half couldn’t have worked the same way instead of leaving the viewer with a gloomy, depressed feeling when it’s over and almost forgetting completely about the comedy that came before it. I also believe this is why this film failed at the box office while the similar M*A*S*H succeeded simply because that movie remained funny all the way through.
Arkin, in the lead, is miscast and seems too old for the part. His nervous, hyper persona doesn’t work and would’ve been more effective had it been toned down by being played by a younger actor who was more emotionally detached. The rest of the supporting cast though is great including Martin Balsam who makes cinematic history by being the first actor to ever appear sitting on a toilet in a movie.
My Rating: 8 out of 10
Released: June 24, 1970
Runtime: 2Hour 2Minutes
Director: Mike Nichols
Available: DVD, Amazon Instant Video, YouTube