When I was in high school, I was in speech club. In fact, hard as it is to believe, I was president of the club. One year, I competed in the “programmed reading” category, which I was apparently rather good at because I went to the state championship—a feat I accomplished that one time only. My presentation was about war and the highlight of it was part of Joe’s speech at the end of Dalton Trumbo‘s great novel Johnny Got His Gun, where Joe is begging to be killed. I still remember the excitement of doing that. It is great writing and I was at the right age to be doing it.
I just picked up the film version of the book when I was at the library. I was curious to see if Trumbo had written the screenplay, because he was blacklisted in the late 1940s. To my delight, far from just being the writer, he also directed it. (I didn’t know that Trumbo ever directed anything—and in fact, this was his first and only directing gig.) Wow. The movie is wonderful. It is life-affirming at the same time that it is the ultimate condemnation of war. The print used to create the DVD is not that good, but it doesn’t too much matter—the movie is so gripping that it is likely that only film geeks will notice. However, it is sad that such a great film hasn’t been restored.
My extremely positive reaction to Johnny Got His Gun may have something to do with having spent the afternoon watching Iron Man 2 with my brother. In general, I will watch anything with my brother because I haven’t spent that much time with him over the past couple of decades. He likes these kinds of films, so fine. But this film was really too much. I’m getting to the point where I can’t watch a film like this without seeing it in a larger context.
Hitler oversaw the genocide of six million “sub-humans” and we rightly call him evil. Andrew Jackson oversaw the genocide a large group of “sub-humans” (Native or First Americans) and we put him on our $20 bill. (Admittedly, the numbers are smaller and no Final Solution was ever attained; but the smaller numbers are due to the far lower population density of all people in the United States at that time; the early Nazi solution to the “Jew Problem” was the same as the Jackson solution to the Indian Problem.) As a country, we are frighteningly ignorant of just how evil we have been and continue to be. As a nation it seems that the more than 600,000 Iraqi civilians killed by us is nothing compared to the slightly more than 4,000 American professional soldiers who have died. (Even the left-leaning Antiwar.com seems to think American lives matter more than Iraqi lives.) Seeing Iron Man 2 within this context is a real problem because the film demands the context that Americans never abuse power—it is just those horrible foreigners who do that.
Even if you take away this evil aspect of the film, Iron Man 2 sucks. It has a few laughs and Mickey Rourke and Sam Rockwell put in good performances as one would expect. But that’s about as far as the good goes. Robert Downey is really starting to look his (my!) age, and his performance is not up to par. In the first film, Pepper Potts (the character played by Gwyneth Paltrow) was smart enough not to become romantically involved with the narcissistic Tony Stark, but she’s not smart in this film. Jon Favreau shows yet again that he is no better at directing than he is at acting. (And he is a terrible actor, if my sarcasm is not screaming off your computer screen.) The story is totally ridiculous. The only believable character was the villain who also has the only true human scene in the film (at the start where he watches his father die). He has a reason to be angry. And our hero? I guess we’re just supposed to know that arms manufacturers who are implicitly guilty of millions of deaths are the good guys. And boy is the film long! Most movies do not have more than 45 minutes of material in them; this one surely didn’t—unless you think “Oh! Let’s put Tony Stark in a race car!” is content; it lasted two hours and ten minutes! I was so bored with the film, I got out my notebook after a half-hour. Unfortunately, much of the film takes place at night, so I was limited as to how much I could write.
After the film, I was sitting with my brother waiting for his bus. A guy came by and heard us talking about Marvel Comics and the movies that it has spawned. The guy asked us with some enthusiasm if we had seen Iron Man 2. We said that we had just seen it. He began to gush about the film and told us he had seen it twice. A teenager, you ask? Oh, no. This guy must have been in his mid-fifties. And he wasn’t crazy, in the drooling sense of the word. But of course he liked it. What’s not to like? It tells Americans just what they want to hear. It is just the kind of entertainment that a culture creates while it is disintegrating.
Perhaps I grabbed Johnny Got His Gun as a kind of antidote to the two-hour propaganda poisoning I had just suffered. I can’t say. If so, it worked. If you are forced to suffer through Iron Man 2 or any of the many films just like it, I highly recommend Johnny Got His Gun; it’s better than the suicide hotline.