"Johnny got his gun, his dog day's just begun; now everybody is on the run, because Johnny got his gun." Yeah, people, I just had to break out that cliché, because I'm actually not particularly fond of Metallica's "One"... at least in its studio form (Seriously, what is up with the mixing?), although, even when you take out of account the fact that "One" is actually inspired this story, it's more fitting than "Janie's Got a Gun". Sorry, Steven Tyler, but there's no running away from this pain for Johnny, because he ain't got no legs, like Lt. Dan (Run, Forrest, run, run away from the pain!), only, you know, he also doesn't have arms, or a face, and with it, the ability to see, hear, smell, taste, speak, or grow a moustache (Looking at John, I'd imagine that's a problem for Bonhams), although he does have decent brain function... which allows him to think about his situation. ...You know what, they probably should have just left him to die, because if there are fates worse than death, then, wow, this is most certainly proof of that, which isn't to say that it's all that likely. Yeah, the Joe Bonham protagonist opens the novel up with a prologue which says that there is a million-to-one chance of something like this happening, but I'm thinking that Metallica didn't get the title "One" from that statistic, as much as they were saying that only "one" poor chump is suffering this fate, because I don't know if a human being can get this unlucky. Well, this is military fiction dealing with a World War I tragedy, and looking at the weaponry we have now that you sure hope would kill you, I think that this film fulfilled its job of making me want to join the military even less, which is good, because as much as this film thrusts that message at you, you better comply. Yeah, people, if you don't remember that this film was made in 1971, at the height of the hippie's anti-war movement, just look at the poster that flashes a big ol' piece sign at you, and while that isn't to say that this film isn't decent, it is to say that it has its share of subtlety issues, among other problems (Well, at least the film can't possibly have more problems than Joe Bonham).
Something of a meditative piece in certain places, the film has a tendency to take on a certain quietness and subtlety to its storytelling, and such a move would be more effective if it was more realized, yet as things stand, Dalton Trumbo's direction is neither thoughtful enough nor slick-paced enough for you to take the film's style for what it is, resulting in atmospheric dry spells, some of which are truly dulling. Trumbo dulls things down more than he probably should, and such an issue would perhaps not be so recurring if Trumbo had more material to meditate upon, rather than a script that he himself wrote whose excessiveness not only bloats meandering filler to the point of repetition, but also bloat material to the point of convoluting the narrative by juggling too many plot elements to feel consistent, or even focused in its progression. Dealing with the Joe Bonham characters' learning to make due with his new and horrible life, as well as with Bonham's backstory, surrealistic dreams and, just for good measure, confrontation with Christ himself (Donald Sutherland makes for quite the groovy, oddly '60s-looking Jesus in a WWI timeline), the film takes on a lot of interesting ideas, but in execution, Trumbo fails to keep controlled enough in his cinematic translation of his own novel's worthy story for the narrative to not feel overblown, repetitious and maybe even aimless. Perhaps all of the excessive layering would be more organic if the story concept was grander enough to be especially worthy of such ambition, for although this drama is certainly meaty, with plenty of layers that surprisingly feel pretty fitting (Seriously though, what was up with the Jesus segments?), the more the film struggles to flesh out its narrative, the harder it is to deny the minimalism of this subject matter, although that might simply be because much of the meat goes undercut by subtlety issues. Subject matter this devastating has be treated very delicately, because if dramatic storytelling gets carried away, the final product would be too much of an emotional challenge for you to feel the thematic weight, yet the route that Trumbo goes as storytelling is arguably just as questionable, as Trumbo actually stresses the thematic depth a touch too much, with anything from heavy-handed symbolic set pieces to sentimentality, both of which have moments in which they're not simply distancing, but cheesy as reflects of overambition. Really, at the end of the day, "ambition" is the key term which best describes this passionate meditation upon worthy subject matter, and such an overwhelming desire to compel results in plenty of realized inspiration, but once realization slips, the ambition leaves storytelling to buckle under the weight of its overly meditative atmospherics, overblown storytelling and subtlety issues, and plummet shy of its potential. The film is kind of underwhelming, and when you see just where the story could have gone, there's no denying that potential is lost, nonetheless salvaged enough for the final product to endear, sometimes grip, while at least keeping consistent in aesthetic value.
In order to reinforce its themes of distinguishing harsh reality and dreamy reality, the film really relies on Jules Brenner's cinematography, which is a touch dated, but still truly outstanding in its dynamicity, alone, gracing the hospital segments with a black-and-white color palette and emphasis on shadow that handsomely captures the subject matter's bleakness, the background segments with tastefully controlled color, and the dream segments with a heavy glow to lighting that is truly beautiful in its richness. Of course, most every segment in the stylish film is handsome, because if nothing else stands out in this drama, it's the intricately diverse and aesthetically striking visual style, so much so that the drama is almost worthy seeing just for you to observe just how playful it is with its style, or rather, how playful Dalton Trumbo is with the film's visual style. As director, Trumbo actually works pretty well with plenty of stylistic attributes, playing with the diversity of Brenner's cinematography in order to reinforce thematic and tonal dynamicity, and even with Millie Moore's snappy editing (Yeah, there are quite a few jump-cuts, but whatever) in order to add some entertaining flare, which isn't to say that Trumbo's thoughtful atmospherics are frequently too thoughtful for their own good, because even all of this heavily thoughtful storytelling wears down momentum to a dull point more often than it should, when it's realized, it immerses and moves. What further compels in this character drama is Trumbo's work with his performers, every one of which endears with his or her own distinctive portrayal, but none more so than then-newcomer Timothy Bottoms, whose grounded charisma sells the innocence of the lead Joe Bonham character, whose heavy emotional layers sells both overwhelming fear and great hope, both of which are instrumental in the selling of this film. Bottoms' solid lead performance is, of course, highly prominent in this intimate study on a man's struggles, both relatable and horrible beyond one's greatest fears, and it, combined with sharp style, inspired direction and even some clever writing, sees some powerful highlights in storytelling which is generally stands to do greater justice to a story that is itself still of limited weight. At its core, this story is kind of minimalist, and that applies sensitivity to engagement value that is, of course, undercut by the missteps within Trumbo's interpretation of his own narrative concept, yet at the same time, the basic idea behind this drama, on its own, holds too much intrigue to easily shake, being not only an interesting character study with plenty of nifty, almost surrealistic dreamy aspects, but a worthy portrait on the horrors of warfare that, despite its subtlety issues, carries plenty of water, thematically and dramatically speaking. Were there more consistency to inspiration, rather than sheer ambition, to the telling of this worthy tale, the final product would have rewarded pretty thoroughly, through all of the minimalist aspects, yet as things stand, the conceptual value and interpretation's heart prove to be enough to brink the final product at least to the brink of rewarding.
In closing, bland atmospheric spells steady a sense of momentum which is shaken enough by questionable structural pacing and a rather convolutedly overblown narrative that, alongside subtlety issues, reflect too much of an ambition to flesh out a story too conceptually minimalist for the final product to truly stand out, but through excellent and richly dynamic cinematography, thoughtful direction and strong acting - particularly by Timothy Bottoms - behind a dramatically and thematically solid story concept, "Johnny Got His Gun" stands as a highly flawed, but borderline rewardingly endearing study on the dark depths of struggle to which a human can sink.
2.75/5 - Decent