Today! Because in order to be grounded, I’ve got to be crazy. And I must be crazy to keep flying. But if I ask to be grounded, that means I’m not crazy anymore, and I have to keep flying –
Directed by Mike Nichols (x2)
Starring Alan Arkin (x5), Jon Voight (x2), Martin Balsam (x3), Buck Henry (x3), Richard Benjamin, Bob Newhart, Anthony Perkins (x2), Art Garfunkel, Jack Gilford (x2), Martin Sheen, Orson Welles (x2), Bob Balaban (x2), Paula Prentiss, Norman Fell (x2), Charles Grodin, Austin Pendleton, Peter Bonerz, Jack Riley (x4), Bruce Kirby, Richard Libertini (x3), Elizabeth Wilson (x2), Susanne Benton, Jon Korkes, Marcel Dalio
The Top 100! We finally made it! This is what the list always was in the past – a tight group of a hundred films I love, not this insanely bloated collection including a ton of movies I like but would probably be embarrassed to bring up to the Gallery of Sound register. And often floating near the end of those lists from days gone by is this adaptation of my favorite book, Mike Nichols’ noble experiment in bringing Joseph Heller’s unfilmmable novel to the screen. I don’t anticipate ever doing a list like this of my favorite books – come on, that would be far too difficult, as I don’t really re-read books much, so even though I remember loving The Stand, how it would compare to something I read last month is questionable. So, just for your edification and because this is all about me anyway, Catch-22 is my favorite book. I’m not sure what is ever going to supplant it, but I suppose anything’s possible. I’ve still never read The Da Vinci Code!
Catch-22’s twisted, non-linear storyline makes for some head-spinning confusion the first time you read it – not that it’s an overly complicated story, it just continues folding backward and forward on itself – revealing no clear way it could be translated to film. As of this writing, the George Clooney mini-series has not aired, but I always thought that would be the only way this could succeed – you need a lot of hours to cover everything. The fact that Mike Nichols and Buck Henry found a way to make this work as a two hour feature at all is remarkable. It’s an astounding adaptive achievement on par with any other book-to-film project ever made. Is it a perfect movie? Not even kind of. Is it even a fair and true version of Catch-22? I’d say not – there’s simply too much lost. The novel has something like fifty characters with vital corners of the story to tell. But separating it from all that – does this movie work? Absolutely it does. While reading the book would certainly help, I don’t think it’s vitally necessary to follow the plot.
They also compiled an amazing cast to try and pull this off. Arkin’s Yossarian has the tricky task of holding this unwieldy story together, while conveying the alternating horror and insanity of this venue of the war. He’s the only character even approaching roundedness – for the most part, each officer and enlisted man has their own zany scheme going – from purposely crashing their planes to cornering the market on Egyptian cotton to murdering prostitutes – and it all needs to coalesce into the same mostly comedic story. And almost everyone is cast perfectly, no matter how small their roles got trimmed down.
The possible MVP candidates are many – Voight’s profiteering Milo Minderbinder, Welles’ fatuous General Dreedle, Benjamin’s timid Major Danby, Newhart’s responsibility avoiding Major Major, Balsam and Henry as the wry villains Colonels Cathcart and Korn, and on and on – but I’m going to go with the great Jack Gilford as Doc Daneeka, who not only gets to deliver the great bit explaining what Catch-22 is (“That’s some catch that Catch-22.” “It’s the best there is.”) but also has the funny sequence where he’s falsely listed on McWatt’s plane manifest that crashes, and the rest of characters ignore him as one dead from that point forward.
One of the last plays I did before the extended semi-retirement I currently enjoy was the stage version of Catch-22, which works about as well as the film, plot-wise. I portrayed Snowden, Nately, McWatt, The Soldier Who Saw Everything Twice, and Clevenger, all of whom (spoiler alert) die in the book – only Snowden, Nately, and McWatt appear in the film. Exeter, Pennsylvania, 2007! Were you there? I was pretty good, intermittently, in that play! My lingering regret is that neither the film nor the play features the book sequence of Clevenger’s trial – one of the funniest scenes in one of the funniest books ever written. I think there is a ten-minute play version floating around – or really, you could just copy the dialogue straight into the format, it’s a dialogue-heavy section. If this is missing from the Clooney mini-series, I’m cancelling Hulu.
Mike Nichols joins the Two-Timer directors, following #311 The Graduate, while there are a ton of new and advancing actors, led by Alan Arkin’s fifth appearance (#274 Argo, #307 The Return of Captain Invincible, #126 Glengarry Glen Ross, and #209 Wait Until Dark) and Mel Brooks’ staple Jack Riley (#198 Spaceballs, #157 High Anxiety, #135 History of the World Part I) advances to the Fours. Spotlight!