Adapting any great work from one form into another (here, a novel into a movie) poses great challenges, and Mike Nichols doesn’t get past all of them in Catch-22. Usually, great works depend on their form and use it, and switching it into another form means either a) losing the way the work uses the form or b) keeping it, and discovering that what works in one form doesn’t work in another.
Nichols went for option b) here and, well, that’s exactly what happened. Joseph Heller’s novel is huge, discursive, digressive, shifting tones between absurdist comedy and utter bleakness, and Nichols follows that closely. It doesn’t fully work as a film; works that are time-bound (symphonies, plays, films) need more focus than a novel. Catch-22 never develops the kind of pace and energy that Robert Altman brought to M*A*S*H, the other and better-remembered dark war comedy of 1970.
If this is a film that has way too much going on, at least a lot of it’s good, and some of it is extraordinary. Buck Henry delivers a good, funny script; the cinematography by David Watkin is never less than beautiful; and Henry and Nichols keep the spine of the novel intact, coming back to and finally revealing Snowden’s secret, the real truth of war and humanity. Best of all is the cast. Alan Arkin plays Yossarian, the World War 2 bombardier determined to live forever or die trying, and he’s perfect. So is everyone else here, the roster of talent is just insane: Henry, Bob Newhart, Martin Balsam, Richard Benjamin (“Major Danby, sir!” “Danby. D-A-N-B-Y”), Paula Prentiss, Anthony Perkins, Art Garfunkel, Martin Sheen, Bob Balaban, Charles Grodin (a deeply scary performance), Orson Welles, and Jon Voight, who gets an exchange with Yossarian that’s one of the most vicious and accurate descriptions of capitalism ever.
Catch-22 falls into the category of Not Fully Successful, Still Worth Seeing. It streams on Amazon and Google Play, but not for free.