This film came to theaters during the Vietnam War, not long after Nixon announced the invasion of Cambodia and shortly after the subsequent Kent and Jackson State killing of student protesters. I loved the movie then and now, but many film critics did (and do) not. Its cast qualifies as one of the best ensembles ever arranged. Based on Joseph Heller's classic antiwar novel with a screenplay written by master screenwriter Buck Henry (also a member of the great cast) and directed by Mike Nichols, this film pulls no punches in its attack on the war machine, but it really goes further.
First some background: set in WWII-era Italy, the movie concerns an American Army Air Force group performing bombing runs on Italian targets. Colonel Cathcart (Martin Balsam) leads the group, with help from his executive officer Lt Col. Korn (Buck Henry). Among the officers in the group, Capt. John Yossarian, (Alan Arkin), a bombardier, stands out from the others as the focus of the film. Yossarian hates flying missions. He wants to live and realizes flying bombing missions puts his life, and the lives of others, in danger.
The pull quote which leads this review, was taken from dialog with Dr. 'Doc' Daneeka (Jack Gilford). Yossarian wants 'Doc' to ground him, but 'Doc' won't because of the thinking generally outlined in the quoted dialog. Yossarian doesn't quit his efforts after failing with 'Doc.' While recuperating after catching a shrapnel wound, Yossarian meets the squadron's chaplain: Capt. A.T. Tappman (Anthony Perkins), who he enlists in his cause of no more missions. The chaplain also fails to get Col. Cathcart to lessen the load on his bombing crews.
Yossarian's efforts may provide the major focus, but other plot threads contribute to the film's montage of insanity. Lt. Milo Minderbinder (Jon Voight) uses his position procuring food for the group's mess hall to trade the assets of the squadron for “better food,” at least, he starts out saying things like that. Ultimately, his ambitions for M&M Enterprises -- what he calls his syndicate -- overwhelm any desire for better food. Although the film's focus on Milo and M&M Enterprises points out problems with war profiteering in particular, it goes beyond that to show the inevitable corruption of “public/private partnerships” in general.
When a squadron's commander: Major Duluth, meets his end while leading a bombing run, Col. Cathcart promotes a captain to replace him based on that captain's name, which leads him to think the captain already has the proper rank. Maj. Major Major Major (Bob Newhart) and his aide: Sgt. Towser (Norman Fell), provide another point of focus on the lunacy. In addition to characters already mentioned above, Flight Operations Officer Maj. Danby (Richard Benjamin), Nurse Duckett (Paula Prentiss), Capt. Nately (Art Garfunkel), Lt. Dobbs (Martin Sheen), Capt. Orr (Bob Balaban), and Capt. Aarfy Aardvark (Charles Grodin), provide the leading character portrayals which populate the film's events, but even the film's minor characters: Brig. Gen. Dreedle (Orson Welles), “his WAC” (Susanne Benton), Lt. Col. Moodus (Austin Pendleton: Gen. Dreedle's son-in-law) and Capt. J.S. McWatt (Peter Bonerz) receive excellent portrayals.
I deliberately have not said much about the details of the movie's plot for several reasons. I don't want to spoil the film for this review's readers. Plus, description presents some difficulty for a relatively short article. Most of the movie comes as a series of dream-like flashbacks. Although their sequence usually does not matter, the short vignettes make a montage which give the background for Yossarian's predicament and help to justify his resolution.
Seldom does a movie based on a book measure up. However, taken on it own, this film has much to offer the viewer. Fans of the book should also consider that many movie viewers read a book after viewing a movie based on it. Although this film has some complexity in its presentation, it covers quite a bit of ground. It definitely qualifies both as an antiwar film and a very dark satire. However, it has aspects that lend even more of an anti-establishment tinge than those attributes might suggest.
Although made at the time of the Vietnam conflict, World War II provides the setting for this film. Questioning American moral supremacy in that conflict does not usually happen in Hollywood's films. However, the American establishment in this film does not possess any moral superiority to its war opponents. Even more than the horrors of war get exposed for view in this movie. Like a few other films, this one shows the inevitable corruption of power. Especially for people who question the legitimacy of the American establishment, but also for the general viewer, I give Catch-22 my highest recommendation.