This was my friend’s pick for his turn at movie night, and I must say I was not unwilling to see it. It is directed by Mike Nichols, most famous for The Graduate, and was also written by that film’s screenwriter, the delightful Buck Henry. The only nagging doubts were that the famed novel it is adapted from seems somewhat unadaptable, and the whole fear of having to sit through two hours of tendentious, eye-rolling “humorous” message about how war is, like, totally absurd. However, the movie turned out to be unendurable in a wholly different way than I expected.
We open with a young Alan Arkin standing in some bunker as the sound of bombers drowns out his dialogue. He walks out of the bunker near some guy that is raking the gravel, who pulls out a knife and stabs him. As Arkin lies bleeding in the dirt, his face comes on screen and a voice says “Help him!” he replies “Help who?” “The bombardier.” “But I’M the bombardier.” Then we return to Arkin, seemingly no worse for wear.
It's like this: Yossarian [that's Arkin] wants to get out of flying his missions for the reason that he's crazy. But of course you'd be crazy to want to fly dangerous missions, and since he realizes this, therefore he must be sane. That's the catch-22. Apparently another part of the joke is that there are so many catches, they have numbers extending at least into the twenties.
The rest of the movie is made up of little scenes that only vaguely relate to each other. In one of the first, a squadron of bombers takes off, and then a scene continues as we see them continue to fly off and assume formation. It looks great—actually the entire movie looks fucking fabulous—but it's apparently quite emblematic of the reasons the movie went way over budget, because every time something went wrong with that shot, the planes had to come all the way back, land, and take off again. It might have been worth it, for a few shots, but apparently it resulted in them shooting planes for six months—when they only appear in the movie for ten minutes. Anyway, soon follows a crazy scene up in the bomber with Yossarian freaking out as bombs go off all around and the plane is hit. He is injured—but suddenly there's another guy lying on the ground, and we have a repeat of that scene where the voice says "Help him… the bombardier" and Yossarian says "I'm the bombardier."
Many more vignettes follow: Bob Newhart is promoted to Major because his last name is Major. He only allows people to make appointments to see him when he's out of the office. Orson Welles shows up as some clueless guy in charge. The number of missions that must be flown before one can be discharged keeps getting raised. This thing. That thing. More things. At around the halfway point, the tone goes from comic to violent and tragic. Scenes are still only somewhat related, there is little to no character arc for anyone, there are few to no ongoing stories.
All of this is very ambitious. Yay, ambition! Unfortunately, it's something very few people are going to want to sit through—and I am officially not one of those people. Because, just a few scenes in, you realize that this is just going to go on until the running time has been reached, and then it's going to end, not much really having been accomplished, no story or arc completed. Which ultimately means that there is NO reason to watch it. Why should you sit through all this? Why not just watch the first five minutes and the last five minutes? And I hate to say it, but if you did, I don't think you'd miss all that much.
Which is not to say that it's not admirable. It is a noble experiment, it is surely advanced and post-narrative [making it no surprise that Steven Soderbergh shows up to deliver a commentary—which I didn't listen to], the acting is fine, the coordination of planes and various other elements is amazing—it's just that they lost sight of whether this was something anyone would want to sit through.
If you decide to watch it, because you love the book or whatever [although I hear it's not that great as an adaptation], don't be afraid to fast-forward, or just turn it off after you see what the situation is. I suspect that the commentary is fairly interesting—I hear that Nichols is fairly candid about what went wrong—but no way am I going to sit through it. One revelation this movie opened up for me, however, is that Alan Arkin, who I had only known through his more recent films like Little Miss Sunshine or Get Smart, was actually a megababe back in his day. That is the enduring message I will take away from this film.
I wouldn't, but if you do—remember: sometimes running away is the bravest thing you can do.