Starring: Alan Arkin, Arthur Garfunkel, Anthony Perkins, John Voight, Martin Sheen, Orson Welles
Director: Mike Nichols
Rated: M (15+)
Distributor: Paramount Golden Classics
Extras: Commentary by Mike Nichols and Steven Soderburgh
I wonder if, in the wake of last week’s devastating defeat, Mark Latham is taking comfort in his favourite book, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, a work that he has called “a great reflection on the challenges and contradictions of life”? Or perhaps he’s checking out the film adaptation starring Alan Arkin as Yossarian, a USA Air Force bombardier stationed on Corsica during World War Two? Picture Latham on the couch with ‘Bomber’ Beazley, watching the opening sequence where in one long, impressive shot we’re introduced to our anti-hero, Yossarian, caught in an impossible dilemma; he wants to be grounded from his suicidal duties but he can only achieve this if he is certified insane. If he asks to be grounded he’s obviously not crazy because anyone in their right mind can see that the relentless missions are sheer lunacy. And therein lies the catch.
The plot gets more demented with the arrival of General Dreedle (a bombastic Orson Welles) who pins medals on the squadron for courageously bombing the Mediterranean Sea, an honour Yossarian avoids by fronting up to the ceremony naked. He appears nude again up a tree at his colleague’s funeral but in the eyes of the egomaniacal Colonel Cathcart (Martin Balsam) this tendency is not enough to disqualify him from flying. Absurd as all this madness is, a recurring flashback of Yossarian helping a wounded buddy provides an ominous undercurrent to the film. It’s a surreal fever dream that cracks through into Yossarian’s reality towards the end, giving us a glimpse of the horror that this sort of combat inevitably entails.
Heller had been a bombardier himself during the war and his insights make for a compelling anti war statement. Like that other black comedy M.A.S.H. which came out in exactly the same year, Catch-22 had palpable resonances with American audiences, many of whom were questioning their country’s involvement in Vietnam. Watching this movie today, Latham and Beazley might well be asking why our troops are still involved in Iraq and wondering just why it is that they are unable to do anything about it.