Adapted from the award-winning 1939 pacifist novel and a one-character play first mounted Off Broadway in 1982, this incarnation of Johnny Got His Gun is a mismatch of medium, text and talent. Joe (Ben McKenzie), a Colorado-born WWI doughboy, stirs to consciousness after surgery; he haltingly comprehends that a German shell has rendered him deaf, mute, blind and limbless, and struggles to reconnect his brain to the world beyond his hospital bed. Where Trumbo’s book is a hallucinatory, cumulative roar against the mass of men’s willing service as cannon fodder, Bradley Rand Smith’s theatrical condensation makes a showy monologue of it. As with plays like the ‘70s hit The Elephant Man, the visual fact of an attractive, intact actor allows the audience to literally deny the protagonist’s shame and anger at disfigurement.
Filmed on a stage dressed only with a bench and chair, McKenzie is generally competent (when he doesn’t have to bellow or do accents), but much more convincing playing all-American Joe’s reminiscences of boyhood follies—the blandest of Trumbo’s prose—than reaching for rage or desperation. Though Joe is 20, the author was a white-hot idealist in his 30s when he wrote Johnny; unsurprisingly, his concluding philippic against masters of war was more persuasively uttered in measured tones by a sage-like Donald Sutherland in last summer’s bio-doc Trumbo. Making his debut feature with this play-on-film conceit, Rowan Joseph occasionally places his camera overhead for a dry-ice-aided dream sequence or shoots one of his myriad medium close-ups against a twilight-orange backcloth, and the sum is still as juiceless as a theatrical archive tape. As Joe bangs head against pillow in Morse code to communicate with his attending nurse, Trumbo’s abrasive howl against the romance of war is stunted by the filmmakers’ dull pedantry.
It’s unclear if Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun can work on stage, stripped of TV-star casting and distancing cine-frills, but the Smith script’s cuts seem skittishly hedged (lines declaring that pro-war legislators needing to be “drawn and quartered” are elided). An end-title dedication to the “noble sacrifice” of war casualties is a perversion of Trumbo’s theme of the false nobility in trading life for a political sales pitch for “liberty.” Perhaps Joseph and his collaborators should’ve attached their sanctimony to a more suitable property.