Catch-22 (1970)

Catch-22 (1970), directed by Mike Nichols.

It is strange. The book is so absurd that my imagination never filled in details that the movie supplies: the realism in the base and aircraft and uniforms. In my mind the scenes are like sketch comedy on a bare stage.

The book also has an unconventional structure of cycling through the same stories over and over, growing more bitter with time. What might have been light comic bits at the outset grow darker and painfully tragic.

The movie does track that change in tone, using flashbacks instead of repetition, most particularly in remembering the horror of poor Snowden, freezing in the back of the bomber.

This was overshadowed by MASH (1970), another military satire from the same year. That's a shame: the other film is more of a comedy, but this one hits harder in critiquing the madness of military command in wartime.

Terrifically rich cast: Alan Arkin, Bob Balaban, Martin Balsam, Richard Benjamin, Marcel Dalio, Norman Fell, Art Garfunkel, Jack Gilford, Charles Grodin, Buck Henry (who wrote the screenplay), Bob Newhart, Anthony Perkins, Paula Prentiss Martin Sheen, Jon Voight, Orson Welles.

When reading the book I remember wanting to shoot Milo, the hustler whose Syndicate winds up running the war. Jon Voight's cheery, clean-cut sociopath is a great interpretation.

Stephen Ambrose's book The Wild Blue is a history of the bomber crews operating out of Italy, the location of Catch-22. Partly it is a biography of George McGovern, B-24 pilot. Ambrose ran into Joseph Heller in Europe while researching the book and they talked about the war. Heller told him: "By they way, I never had a bad officer". Ambrose was astonished: "But... but... what about Colonel Cathcart and Major Major and...?" Heller: "That was fiction".

Photographed by David Watkin. Almost no score.

Available on DVD, no sign of a Blu-ray. Steven Soderbergh and the director provide a chatty commentary track from around 2001.

Soderbergh worked on the disc transfer and knows the film pretty well, but the director points out all sorts of details he never noticed.

Q: "How did you do the shadows in this scene?" A: "Those are from planes flying over. We didn't screw around".

I believe a hidef version of the movie is available via streaming services.