At this point in time, Mike Nichols was a rising star. As you can recall, he directed the hit 1967 film The Graduate. His debut feature put him high on the map of talent and everyone had high expectations for him. People waited with bated breath as his second film, Catch-22 made its way into theaters in June of 1970. I was a big fan of The Graduate, and his second film appealed to me based on the plot and the pedigree of the cast. Unfortunately, I don’t have the greatest news about this picture. I was rather underwhelmed to say the least. As the movie faded to black at the end, I came away with a sense of disappointment. I was disappointed the film didn’t live up to my high hopes. I am not saying the film is completely awful, as there are some genuinely endearing moments, but the picture is underwhelming on the whole.
It’s kind of hard to give a good description of the plot because I felt like the film was just a conglomeration of scenes mashed together. Scenes that failed to form a cohesive narrative. But I will do my best to describe what this film is about. This film is about a military captain named Yossarian (Alan Arkin) who has had enough of fighting on the Mediterranean front in World War Two. In order to get out of the war, he decides to do anything possible to label himself as insane. That includes driving everyone else crazy.
What exactly didn’t I like about this film? Well there were several things. I briefly mentioned the plot structure issues in my previous paragraph. The movie was strung together by a loose thread it felt like and the story barely made sense. That was obvious when it came to the tone of the film. It didn’t know whether to be serious or to be funny. The first half of the film is trying to make you laugh, but suddenly the second half of the film turns into a rather dark drama and I was taken aback at the sudden change of tone. Now after Nichols sickened us with rather graphic war scenes in the second half of the movie, all the sudden we get an ending resembling the tone of the first half. It almost seemed like a ripoff of the ending of The Graduate and almost a cop out. Nichols was attempting to inject laughter in the audience that final scene, but not me. Also I had some issues with the script Buck Henry wrote. He adapted the screenplay from a very popular novel which was deemed unfilmable and that shows in the final product. The screenplay was essentially disjointed.
As for the performances, I did think they were pretty good. Let me say right now that some of the actors here suffer from cases of overacting. Sometimes it was annoying, and other times it was amusing. Firstly, Alan Arkin delivers a delightfully zany performance as Yossarian. It was amusing watching him become a head case to his superiors. His performance introduced him to the eyes of the public. If there is a positive thing to take away from this film, it’s watching Arkin being a crazy man. Jon Voight had a memorable performance as one of the soldiers in the film: Lt. Milo Minderbinder. My favorite scene of the film was his character blowing up his own base. Now that was something I was laughing at. The veterans of the cast are the ones guilty of overacting. I’m looking at you Colonel Cathcart (Martin Balsam) and Brig. General Dreedle (Orson Welles). Although Balsam’s opening scene with Arkin as Arkin is looking for a way to leave is quite funny.
When the film was released, it was not successful both critically and commercially. Critics somewhat warmed up to the film over time, but many had issues with the plot and screenplay like I did. The film was widely ignored perhaps because 1970 was a year war films were popular (or in some cases, anti-war films). This can be labeled as a black comedy dealing with thematic issues of war, but the thing is a movie with a similar tone (and a better movie) MASH was released. Between MASH and Patton, and the ongoing Vietnam War, I don’t think audiences were in the mood for another movie dealing with war even if the theme was decidedly antiwar.
Now there are some good things to like about the film. The performances are fun to watch especially from Alan Arkin. There are scenes that are great ones such as where Voight’s character bombing his own base and General Dreedle sending his own guy to be executed. The aerial sequences are also well-done. But they really don’t make up for the disappointment of the rest of the film.
I had high hopes for Catch-22, but it ultimately did not lead to my expectations. There are major plot and script issues and Nichol’s direction left something to be desired. But this film can be part of his growing pains and he will come to redeem himself with future films. He did make a valiant attempt to make a black comedy about war. He wasn’t able to pull it off as Robert Altman did with MASH. This is not an awful film, but its a rather disappointing film. But hey not all films can be like The Graduate.
My Grade: C-