Director Mike Nichols and writer-actor Buck Henry followed their enormous hit The Graduate (1967) with this timely adaptation of Joseph Heller's satiric antiwar novel. Haunted by the death of a young gunner, all-too-sane Capt.
Yossarian (Alan Arkin) wants out of the rest of his WW II bombing missions, but publicity-obsessed commander Colonel Cathcart (Martin Balsam) and his yes man, Colonel Korn (Henry), keep raising the number of missions that Yossarian and his comrades are required to fly. After Doc Daneeka (Jack Gilford) tells Yossarian that he cannot declare him insane if Yossarian knows that it's insane to keep flying, Yossarian tries to play crazy by, among other things, showing up nude in front of despotic General Dreedle (Orson Welles).
As all of Yossarian's initially even-keeled friends, such as Nately (Art Garfunkel) and Dobbs (Martin Sheen), genuinely lose their heads, and the troop's supplies are bartered away for profit by the ultra-entrepreneurial Milo Minderbinder (Jon Voight), Yossarian realizes that the whole system has lost it, and he can either play along or jump ship.
Though not about Vietnam, Catch-22's ludicrous military machinations directly evoked its contemporary context in the Vietnam era.
Cathcart and Dreedle care more about the appearance of power than about victory, and Milo cares for money above all, as the complex narrative structure of Yossarian's flashbacks renders the escalating events appropriately surreal.
Confident that the combination of a hot director and a popular, culturally relevant novel would spell blockbuster, Paramount spent a great deal of money on Catch-22, but it wound up getting trumped by another 1970 antiwar farce: Robert Altman's MASH. With audiences opting for Altman's casual Korean War iconoclasm over Nichols' more polished symbolism, the highly anticipated Catch-22 flopped, although the New York Film Critics Circle did acknowledge Arkin and Nichols.
Despite this reception, Catch-22's ensemble cast and pungent sensibility effectively underline the insanity of war, Vietnam and otherwise.