Past the Popcorn provides South King Media with exclusive reviews of Theatrical and Home Video entertainment. We aim to dig just a little deeper than the surface of what we watch.
Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 was recently adapted for TV as a Hulu original miniseries. It tells the blackly satirical story of the fictional Captain John Yossarian’s experiences as a WWII bombardier flying endless bombing raids over Italy out of a tiny island airbase in the Mediterranean. Wartime reality is bad enough, but Yossarian’s chronic PTSD—which is perfectly sane, given the circumstances—wildly skews his reality. The titular catch: he can’t really be crazy if he wants to stop flying, and he can only be grounded if he’s crazy.
I haven’t sat down to watch the Hulu miniseries yet, but the opening ten minutes of the legendary director Mike Nichols’ 1970 bigscreen adaptation sure made me think of Jeff Walls’ comments about The Third Man last week.
“Has me wondering why I bother spending time watching new movies at all.” Pretty much, yep. And Catch-22 also features Orson Welles!
In many ways, the 1970s was the Last Golden Age of Hollywood. As explained in the Netflix documentary Milius, about legendary screenwriter John Milius (Apocalypse Now, Dirty Harry, etc.), the Fathers of Hollywood were all retiring and turning the studios over to suits who knew nothing about the business. In turn, the suits were turning the reins over to producers and directors who actually did know an awful lot about filmmaking, but didn’t really give a damn about demographics; they were making films to suit themselves, and turning out a lot of small masterpieces in the process.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which Jeff references above, is one of those.
So is Catch-22.
Aside from Nichols’ brilliant direction, the cast is simply stunning and turns in fine, fine work. Alan Arkin, in the prime of his prime (which lasted a long, long time) absolutely nails the bemused desperation of the Looney Toons scenario of Heller’s novel, and his fellow pilots and crew members are memorably played by Martin Sheen, Art Garfunkel (!!), Bob Balaban, Charles Grodin, Peter Bonerz, and Jack Riley. Bob Newhart (who would recruit Riley and Bonerz for his TV show) plays the reluctant Major Major; Normal Fell is his clerk, Sergeant Towser; Jack Gilford is the base doctor, while Anthony Perkins is Chaplain Tappman; Buck Henry and Martin Balsam are the base’s oblivious base commanders; and Jon Voigt absolutely nails the opportunistic and purely capitalist commissary Lieutenant Milo Minderbinder.
How’s that for a cast? And there’s more, and not a bit of it wasted. Makes you look at Avatar and think, “What the hell?” Every dollar spent making Catch-22 is right there up on the screen.
And I haven’t even yet mentioned Orson Welles’ General Dreedle, and his fawning, Uriah-Heep-ish son-in-law played in classic Austin Pendleton fashion by… Austin Pendleton. Who else? And even though this is satire, one can’t help but think of Donald Trump and son-in-law Jared. “No, Dad, you can’t really do that.”
About the only quibble I have with the film is Nichols’ realization of Heller’s chapter “The Eternal City,” in which Yosarrian wanders the bombed-out streets of a nightmarish Rome while AWOL. Nichols’ version is disturbing, but not actually nightmarish; but I imagine that, in 1970, this vision was nightmarish enough (given the general anti-war sentiment already in full swing) and not as outright comedic as M*A*S*H, which hit theaters in advance of Catch-22. Hence the generally cold reception from both audiences and critics at the time of its release.
Despite my quibble, this is a film that might actually have aged like a fine wine. It’s certainly not cheesy. I recommend it highly.
Catch-22 is now included with your Amazon Prime subscription. It’s also available to stream for a small charge at the usual outlets.