Adapting a zeitgeist-capturing novel for the big screen is inherently tricky: The stakes are as high as audience expectations, and the results can be disastrous. Mike Nichols' 1970 adaptation of Catch-22 didn't fail quite as historically as the screen adaptations of similarly esteemed literary satires like Bonfire Of The Vanities, Myra Breckinridge, Candy, or Breakfast Of Champions, but it became the first real commercial failure of Nichols' previously charmed film career. Coming out at roughly the same time as Robert Altman's M*A*S*H didn't help the film critically or commercially, but as Nichols himself mostly acknowledges on the DVD's revealing audio commentary, the project was probably doomed from the start. Fresh off the success of Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? and The Graduate, Nichols might have seemed like a smart choice to adapt Joseph Heller's acclaimed novel, but his sentimental, humanistic style now seems at odds with Heller's bleak, absurdist comedy. At a loss for a way to invest emotion into a misanthropic, Kafka-esque satire of military bureaucracy, Nichols adopted Stanley Kubrick's chilly, otherworldly emptiness in telling the story of an Air Force neurotic (Alan Arkin) desperately attempting to be sent home during WWII. Gorgeously shot and well acted but emotionally remote, Catch-22 feels thoroughly atypical for Nichols. As far removed from latter-day Nichols fluff like Working Girl as Arkin's angry antihero is from Melanie Griffith's spunky office worker, Catch-22 captures Nichols at his most daring and experimental. Unfortunately, the film's failure seems to have made a profound impact on its director, and the most fascinating element of the DVD is hearing Nichols the humbled populist look back at his more uncompromising younger self with a mixture of awe and embarrassment. Joined on the audio commentary by fan Steven Soderbergh, who seems to know nearly as much about Catch-22 as its director, Nichols provides priceless insight into the way public perception molds artists' views of their own work. It's a flawed film, hampered by weird tonal shifts and an overpopulated cast. But, 31 years later, Catch-22's chilliness seems forgivable, its vision of a military (and a nation) ruled by gung-ho capitalists, shameless opportunists, and evil yes-men as prescient and incisive as ever.
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