Monday Movie: Catch-22, by David Bax
With the release of Václav Marhoul’s punishing adaptation of Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird on the horizon, I’ve been thinking of the all too common problem of celebrated novels becoming cinematic misfires. I haven’t read Kosinski’s book so I can’t pinpoint where the movie became a failure. But I have read–and loved–Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, so I feel confident in diagnosing the maladies of Mike Nichols’ regrettable 1970 film.
Catch-22 takes place in and around the Italian base camp of a group of American World War II bombardiers. For those not in the know, the title comes from a doctor in the book, who says that a man would have to be crazy–and therefore unfit for service–to fly as many missions as these men have been asked to fly but asking not to fly them proves that the man is sane and, therefore, fit to fly the missions. Heller’s satire of inhumane military bureaucracy is full of ouroboros logic like this, a portrait of institutional insanity from the point of view of a lone, sane man trying to be pronounced insane in order to escape it.
Catch-22, the novel, is filled with absurd and hilarious vignettes of pompous cluelessness from the upper and lower ranks, alongside heartbreakingly realistic descriptions of the devastating human toll such cluelessness takes. Buck Henry’s screenplay, in trying to corral these scenes into a chronological narrative, also shaves away Heller’s defeated humanism. The result is homogeneous cynicism; Catch-22 the movie distances itself from its own events, placing itself above the actions and consequences, resulting in an experience that’s suffocatingly smug.
Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H, from the same year, suffers from the same arrogance but, despite Catch-22‘s truly impressive cast, Altman had the bigger hit. The actual best anti-war film of 1970 is Franklin J. Schaffner’s Patton, a satire so sly that it’s not always received as such (President Nixon loved it). Catch-22, for all its pedigree, is an unfortunate win for the insufferable “the book was better” crowd.