”Okay,” says Captain Yossarian. ”Lemme see if I got this straight. 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.” To which Doc Daneeka replies, ”You’ve got it. That’s Catch-22.”
But more than that, Catch-22 represents the whole state of mindlessness — The Greatest Degeneration — gripping a group of WWII flyers in the Mediterranean. In Mike Nichols’ adaptation of Joseph Heller’s absurdist novel, Alan Arkin’s full-throated turn as Yossarian offers the most affecting evidence of its frustrations. Arkin anchors a comic ensemble that presents a dozen kinds of madness: Bob Newhart twitches through the part of Major Major, who’s glad to see you in his office anytime he isn’t there; Jon Voight’s Milo Minderbinder talks about his plans for acquiring delicacies for the officers’ mess as planes explode around him; Orson Welles, as General Dreedle, is a stately, plump egomaniac inclined to kill his own men. This is not to mention the lunatic charms of Martin Sheen, Anthony Perkins, Charles Grodin, Norman Fell, or Buck Henry, who also wrote the script.
”This is not my kind of movie,” Nichols says on the commentary track. He’s right — it isn’t. The director of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Graduate is more at home with minute personal tensions than with the epic hysteria this project required, so file the film under botched masterpieces, but rank the commentary among the most enlightening of its kind. Nichols and the director Steven Soderbergh (the latter merely a fan, a hepcat, and a genius) chat about line readings and shot compositions and Francois Truffaut’s idea that happiness is circular. And they resurrect tasty anecdotes: ” Don’t f— with me,” Nichols said to studio execs while prepping. ”I’ve got the fifth-largest air force in the world.”