Catch 22 (1970): Mike Nichols Black Comedy of Joseph Heller Best Selling Book

It must have been more enjoyable for the public to read Joseph Heller’s 1955 cult best-selling novel about WWII than to see Mike Nichols’ visual adaptation fifteen years later, when the film was released during the height of the Vietnam War.

Featuring black humor that was far too symbolic, “Catch 22” carried its anti-war message to such an extreme that the movie failed, despite some artistic merits.

Reportedly, viewers could not relate to the characters on any level, emotional or intellectual. It’s an admittedly tough challenge to capture in visual images the book’s more philosophical and existential issues.

Set in the Mediterranean during World War Two, the Air Force officers are killed one by one. For example, in one scene, Yossarian wanders through the streets of Rome, trying to find a way “out.” Another character, Lieutenant Milo Minderbinder, is depicted as the king of black marketeers. The mastermind of an international syndicate, Minderbinder buys and sells from all sides, save the Russians, because they are Communists. He orchestrates the ultimate amoral business transaction by having his own base bombed, and alerting the Germans to an imminent American raid.

In M.A.S.H., Altman’s 1970 black and cynical comedy about the Korean war, while the surgeons were not devoted to the military, there was no doubt about their professional competence and commitment. It was their off-duty behavior, which was “strange” and hilarious.

In contrast, the individual alienation of the film’s heroes was so excessive that viewers felt detachment. Indeed, “Catch 22” fails to show the distinction between on and off military duty.

To be fair, Nichols pays attention to detail00the film might be too overtly detailed, but his strategy is prosaic and explicit and he sentimentalizes the darkly comic absurdity that prevailed in the book and was a major reason for its success.

In the book, which is far more complex than the novel, author Heller was not only outraged by the totality of war, but also convinced, as one critic noted, that “the U.S. was tragically involved in the repetition of the absurdity of European history: its warfare, its class structure, its monomaniacal pursuit of wealth, and its childish reliance upon authority in matter of religion and politics.”

Nichols’ perspective is too remote and detached.  There is also the possibility that the film’s messages were too much for audiences to digest in 1971, while the Vietnam War was still going on in full volume.

On the plus side, Catch 22 is nicely shot and decently acted, though the individual performances don’t cohere into a unified ensemble.

All in all, Nichols took risks with tough material that ultimately did not pay off.

Catch 22 has to be declared artistic and commercial failure.  Fortunately, Nichols’ career did not suffer a major set-back, due to the success of his next film, Carnal Knowledge, which in my view represents his best work.