Anyone willing to fly a suicide mission is insane, but anyone who refuses to do it is sane enough to realise they’d be insane to fly. In a nutshell, that is Catch-22. The remarkable writing and character studies surrounding that nugget of wisdom in the Joseph Heller novel are fascinating dives into the weak minds and strong hearts of those who plod through life during wartime. Adapting that paradox to the screen provides Mike Nichols and Alan Arkin with their very own Catch-22 scenario. A solution denied by the rule. To get to grips with the characters they must drag themselves through the throes of the Second World War, but to do that they must heave themselves into the heart of the characters.
A vignette-style may have worked for the book, but different results are conjured by Nichols and his all-star cast. It does give Nichols’ adaptation the range to include Orson Welles, Bob Balaban and Martin Sheen, to name just a small handful of those interested in bringing Heller’s work to life. Diner scenes riff quickly and lightly on the thick prose of the book. Arkin’s starring role as John Yossarian, the doomed pilot struggling through the eponymous law, is fantastic. There is wry sarcasm hidden in every role and action. Richard Benjamin and Martin Balsam in particular are fantastic, not because they are not fearful of war, but because everyone but Yossarian has a screw or two loose in the brain department. Arkin’s fearful performance, screaming and refusing to accept his fate is phenomenal and the direction Nichols takes to fill the cockpit with Charles Grodin and the rest of the ensemble. They take the horror of war in their stride and are mad for doing so.
Nichols captures the terror not just through manic, captivating interactions between the ensemble but with transient moments of thoughtful contemplation. A white background as Yossarian fails to save a life in a cockpit destined for heaven makes for a remarkable visual, while also keeping the saving graces of the book intact. Catch-22 may have dark themes and horrid intentions hiding behind its characters, but Nichols navigates these immoral and cowardly actions with great effectiveness. They feel fleshed out. Some are even likeable, a trade between having a big-name star in the role and also a visualisation of their weaknesses as human beings. Yossarian’s human reaction to being shot at from miles away is taken in stride by the other maniacs around him, and Nichols focuses on that extremely well.
Slightly too joke-infused for its own good at times, Catch-22 does engage with the humour at the heart of the novel, but a little too much. Catch-22 should be a horrifying experience, but Nichols pads the black comedy out frequently. It works yet changes the desirable qualities of these characters and their manic foibles that let them down before the final hurdle of escaping death. An acceptably decent adaptation of Heller’s work with just a couple spotty moments. The offset of such an engaging and entertaining film is a loss of the depravity the book holds within it. That genuine fear is still intact, but the outcome of it and the impact it has on the squadron around Yossarian is a struggle at times.