Is 2016 the year of Mel Gibson?
It may be too early to tell, but between starring in the action epic Blood Father and then directing this, it’s safe to say that the sixty-year old walking controversy isn’t done with the movie business yet.
Good thing too, at least in this case, because Hacksaw Ridge is an easy contender for year’s best. But to articulate why, we need to briefly talk about Gibson himself.
The world has no shortage of mad geniuses of questionable, even abominable character, and indeed some of them ended up making movies. While I understand one’s unwillingness to consume a work of art crafted with the clear handprint of someone they deplore, as a critic I cannot agree with it. Along this line, many have unhelpfully suggested that this is about separating our experience with art from the personal moral qualms we have of the artist himself. But art is by nature a personal extension of the artist, so really it’s about whether we can appreciate the innate complexities of an expressive human being and engage his ideas and methods of expression that do not offend as his degenerate character does.
And Mel Gibson has justifiably invited criticism on both sides of this coin. You can’t expect to give The Passion of the Christ a complete appraisal as a work of art without addressing both how the ceaselessly punishing brutality of Christ’s sacrifice on screen attempts to grip his audience with a wrenching, unshakable Catholic guilt for it (and whether that works) and the anti-Semitic implication of the appearance and mannerisms of characters like Judas and Caiaphas. Both reveal personal shades of Gibson himself.
As a storyteller and orchestrator of cinematic violence, Gibson aches with urgency to impress divine perspective upon you, which Hacksaw Ridge pulls off masterfully. So awash in grisly, Pacific-theater carnage, it conveys all of Private Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield)’s unwavering pacifism in the slow-motion opening before we get a word of it out of the man himself.
Andrew Garfield (a Jew playing a devout Christian – how ’bout that?!) at last breaks through as a deftly compelling lead of a major feature. This kid would’ve made the perfect Anakin Skywalker had the stars aligned for it; with his undeniable talents wasted on Sony’s misbegotten Spider-Man placeholders, it’s Gibson who puts his earnest likability to work. Indeed, the tale of a conscientious objector becoming one of America’s greatest war heroes sounds like something out of a comic book (but Gibson already mythologized valor and sacrifice with Braveheart). Doss’s reasons for staying put even echo pre-serum Steve Rogers. And that’s not the only similarity. Beliefs notwithstanding, when he arrives on base his lanky physique inspires little confidence in his ability to carry his own weight into battle, let alone the weight of the seventy-five men he saved in a single night.
Yet the story is true, researched meticulously, and presented with inspired direction. The cut from the final stateside farewell to the Okinawa path is a bit jarring and the final action sequence feels held back by budget constraints, but otherwise we have something of a modest masterpiece. Gibson draws heavily on the design of HBO’s The Pacific but otherwise keeps to a structure of simple emotional progression. Doss’s story retains its dramatic cogence all the way through, from his relationship with his trauma-addled father (Hugo Weaving) to his chase for the affection of his future wife Dorothy (Teresa Palmer) to his persistence in staying in the service. I won’t spoil the details of this; suffice to say that true to the film’s Christian-martyr form, Doss endures a good deal of punishment from the nonbelievers around him long before his battalion even walks up the southern Okinawan beaches.
And equally true to history, the violence of America’s toughest Pacific fight against the last enemy we truly respected shell shocks from its suddenness and then never lets up. Little tactical information is provided before. A 400-foot high escarpment must be taken, says the unseen, uncharacterized high command, and the Japanese have thrown us off it six times already. Why it matters, we won’t know.
Our guns magnificently flatten it before the boys begin their climb, to no avail as it turns out. The Japanese are the masters of the patient ambush and utterly without mercy. Within the ensuing chaos, Gibson sets up small objectives to allow for impressive feats by Doss’s gun-toting companions – demolishing bunkers, getting men into foxholes, etc. Yet Hacksaw Ridge makes it equally clear that only death awaits the fool who try to be an action hero.
This is the humanist direction that transcends the pure viscera of suffering that some will insist is overly fetishized in the same wing as admirable but inferior productions as The Revenant and Lone Survivor. In the state of nature that turns men into animals, Doss rises to do the unthinkable without hesitation, first in standing true to his conscience in the face of adversity, and then in scurrying about the infernal bloodbath of the battlefield dragging, hoisting, and lowering men twice his size.
The experience of watching Doss performing one miraculous rescue after another and spurred onward by the power of prayer is universal in its beauty, far more appealing – especially to Hollywood – than the countless scoped kills Bradley Cooper’s Chris Kyle inflicts in the unfairly derided American Sniper. When met with the simple emotional clarity from the first two acts, Doss’s courage and heroism reveals itself to be twofold – one born from his dual conviction of pacifism and patriotism and the other ignited by his impossible persistence while mired in the blood of men turned to beasts in the middle of a barren ridge. And in a year where the two top choices for the American Presidency have exactly zero days of military experience between them, and where bravery is now understood in terms of “conversation starting” through the hollow, juvenile act of kneeling during the National Anthem, thereby disrespecting not only Doss himself but those who fought beside him and endured what he did, the story of Doss as given here reshapes and redefines that American heroic ideal.
I began this review by asking if 2016 is the year of Mel Gibson. If Hacksaw Ridge as a film was anywhere near as self-righteous as this review probably sounds, the answer would assuredly be no. But between Michael Bay’s good-hearted nods of respect for abandoned soldiers in 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, Clint Eastwood’s folkloric lamentation of cynical bureaucratic second-guessing in Sully, and the quaint reminiscence in movies like Hell or High Water and Blood Father (in which he stars), 2016 certainly deserves to be. A gruesome exaltation of the pacifist ethic, Hacksaw Ridge offers the pristine exemplar of American exceptionalism in a year it is most needed, and nobody could’ve realized it but Gibson.