Director Mike Nichols once described the “green awning effect” of becoming a successful auteur. By notching two huge successes in the late ’60s, Nichols convinced Hollywood he knew how to connect with audiences. To test his newfound power, Nichols pitched a movie about a green awning outside a building—the movie would simply show the awning so viewers could watch different people pass underneath. According to Nichols, some executives actually expressed interest in this awful idea because they were so hungry to be in the Mike Nichols business.
The “green awning effect” helps explain why Paramount Pictures gave Nichols a then-massive $17 million budget to adapt Joseph Heller’s 1961 novel Catch-22. A dreamlike satire of military bureaucracy and the inherent madness of war, the book features a disjointed timeline and a large cast of characters, so Catch-22 is the quintessential “unfilmable” novel. Nonetheless, Nichols and his Graduate screenwriter Buck Henry took a crack at the material, imposing a linear narrative by focusing on the many attempts of Captain Yossarian (Alan Arkin) to escape his duty as a World War II bomber pilot stationed on an island in the Mediterranean.
Specifically, the movie’s storyline explores Yossarian’s frustration with the length of his military tour and the “catch-22” rule that prohibits him from quitting. A “catch-22” is a guideline whose pretzel logic makes resolution impossible, so Yossarian can’t claim that bombing runs are driving him mad, because the Army declares that anyone capable of recognizing his own insanity must be sane and therefore suitable for combat.
Unfortunately, the movie itself gets caught in a catch-22: Since the lack of a conventional structure is what makes Heller’s novel work, any attempt to align the book’s events into a straight-ahead progression inherently reduces the novel’s power. Worse, the movie of Catch-22 is a discombobulated mess from a tonal perspective, careering recklessly between absurdist jokes and somber tragedy. Yet Nichols’ massive ambition is not resigned to storytelling, because he also strives to outdo Orson Welles in terms of outlandishly complex tracking shots. Some of Nichols’ images are startling, like unbroken takes in which actors are synchronized with explosions and plane movements, but they make Nichols seem like a cocky show-off. For a director whose incisive focus on character is considered a key virtue, succumbing to auteur hubris is especially embarrassing.
It doesn’t help that the “comedy” Henry and Nichols put onscreen is more strange than funny; in a typical scene, a military functionary laments that a particular soldier has been killed because it says so on a clipboard, even though the soldier is standing right next to him and repeatedly announcing that he’s alive. Given that Catch-22 came out the same year as the incendiary military satire M*A*S*H, this sort of Brechtian contrivance feels outdated.
Despite such massive problems, Catch-22 is never boring. The widescreen cinematography by David Watkin is beautiful, with abstract images like a horrific death scene immediately burning themselves into viewers’ brains. (Believe me, if you see the movie, you’ll know which scene.) Furthermore, the cast is impressive, even though actors drift in and out of the movie so randomly that they can’t deliver full-blooded performances.
Among the most prominent actors, Martin Balsam plays a hard-driving commander, Bob Newhart plays a nervous subordinate, Anthony Perkins plays a compassionate chaplain, and Jon Voight plays a wheeling-and-dealing first lieutenant. Others in the sprawling ensemble include Richard Benjamin, Norman Fell, Art Garfunkel, Jack Gilford, Charles Grodin, Paula Prentiss, and Martin Sheen. Screenwriter Henry pulls double-duty by playing a supporting role, and the director in whose shadow Nichols walks, Orson Welles, shows up for a few scenes as a blustery general.
Catch-22 is a fascinating case study in what happens when a director is given carte blanche, but despite consistently glorious production values and momentary flashes of brilliance, the movie can best be described as a beautiful disaster.