Catch-22 is brilliant. Mike Nichols’s direction is so lucid and evocative (not to mention surprisingly technically deft—note the incredible tracking shot at the beginning of the film). I’d seen it a few times, and used to think it paled in comparison Joseph Heller’s now-iconic novel (one of my all-time favorites). But having re-read the book not too long ago, I was struck by how some of Heller’s humor seemed forced, whereas the film — and this was one of its major criticisms when it was released in 1970 — is darker, moodier and lacks this willfully lighter tone. I think it works better this way, frankly.
The film is a child of its time, as the novel was as well. Vietnam, Kent State and all the other violent upheaval between opposing forces of humanity, economics, race, politics, you name it. Yes, war is hell. And as such, often gets unfairly compared its contemporary M*A*S*H*, a universally-recognized classic. But the latter, also an exceptional satire, withholds most of its vitriol, which is probably why it made the incredibly successful transition to television a few years later.
Catch-22 has much more to say about warfare and its bastard children, such as corporatism and social engineering, as a way of illuminating truths about individuality and morality. That makes it a superior work of art.