[box cover]


Paramount Home Video

Starring Alan Arkin, Buck Henry, Martin Balsam,
Anthony Perkins, Orson Welles, Jon Voight,
Charles Grodin, Art Garfunkle, Jack Gilford,
Bob Newhart, and Martin Sheen

Written by Buck Henry,
from the Joseph Heller novel

Directed by Mike Nichols

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Review by D. K. Holm                    

Call it hubris, craziness, arrogance, or whatever, but someone thought that a movie could be made from Joseph Heller's Catch-22. Like Catcher in the Rye, or even Lolita, this beloved book was deemed unfilmable by the literary types who really hate movies anyway, and by screenwriters who knew that its unruly length and special form of verbal, philosophical humor would form a special challenge. Nevertheless, betting on a hot Mike Nichols — who was just coming off of the adult Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf and the generationally iconic The Graduate — Paramount's John Calley, with Martin Ransohoff, went forward with the project. What they got, from the view of the media, was a dry-run of Heaven's Gate. Bad production press predisposed reviewers to be skeptical, and then Robert Altman's somewhat similarly toned M*A*S*H came out of left field to further steal the film's thunder. Catch-22 did only moderate business in 1970, and it was dubbed a noble disappointment by pundits. Today, however, Catch-22 looks like one of the best pictures of the '70s, a work that helped define the look and feel of that decade's films.

Catch-22 is a surprisingly faithful adaptation of Heller's source novel. In essence, the story is about Yossarian (Alan Arkin), an Armenian-American bombardier stationed on the Mediterranean island of Pianosa during World War II. Like Klinger in the TV-series version of M*A*S*H, he wants to be thought crazy so he can get out of the service. He's seeking any excuse to get rotated home because in this crazy war the commanders keep upping the number of hazardous flights airmen need to fulfill their obligation. Yossarian bumps up against the circular, hermetically sealed illogical logic of the military, which states that anyone who doesn't want to fly is sane and therefore can't receive mental disability leave. From this frame of reference, the movie, like the book, mocks the absurdity of war and the induced callousness that allows outrageous things blithely to happen, such as Aardvark's (Charles Grodin) murder of a whore, and Milo Minderbinder's (Jon Voight) arranged bombing of his own base for financial gain.

In the end, however, Catch-22 is really about the absurdities and moral compromises of American business, as seen by Heller, and the striving hustler Minderbinder is the closest thing to a villain. Scenarist (and co-star) Buck Henry has preserved this aspect of the book while rethinking its narrative organization, weaving an elaborate set of flashbacks within flashbacks. It's a sensible approach to a sprawling novel, one that demands condensation of characters (one of the criticisms of Catch-22 at the time was that many of the beloved characters from the book make what amount to no more than cameo appearances, and some scenes, such as the remarkably filmed death of Hungry Joe, are inexplicable). The cast is superb. Arkin (a kind of Ur-Paul Reiser) is almost over-determined as the perfect Yossarian. Martin Sheen and a host of other actors, character actors, and even future directors, pop up. The technical contributors to this film form a roster of the key stylists who defined cinema in the '70s. Richard Sylbert, who designed so many of the key productions of the time, turns Mexico and Rome into exquisite locations. Sam O'Steen is the editor. And David Watkin did the photography. Nichols makes a valid case that Watkin's burnished, almost classical cinematography went on to influence the look of many successors (The Godfather and Chinatown might be good examples). Nichols' film shows a difficult finesse in blending bedrock American classicism with European influences, some surrealistic, others neorealistic. The emotional thrust of the story culminates with a marvelous Walpurgisnacht trek by Yossarian through the streets of a Minderbinder-controlled Rome, a blend of Fellini's unpredictable lively street-life and Antonioni's dour fatalism. It is beautifully done.

Paramount has done an unusually fine job with this DVD release. Watkin's beautiful Panavision cinematography in Technicolor is given a careful anamorphic transfer (2.35:1), and audio comes in an effective Dolby Digital 5.1, along with Dolby 2.0 and English subtitles. Extras include the very effective theatrical trailer and a photo gallery of the film's vast cast. The audio commentary has Nichols more or less interviewed by a fawning, enthusiastic Steven Soderbergh (who mentions the DVD transfer in the track and may have had some involvement with the disc's production). It's one of the more interesting of recent commentaries, one that reveals all the special-effects secrets, but also imparts a lot about the filmmakers — that Soderbergh is a true student of the best of '70s filmmaking, and that Nichols doesn't really know that much about the technical aspects of movies (at one point he calls a forward tracking shot a "push in").

— D. K. Holm

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