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Wednesday, February 8, 2017

OSCARS 2017: Hacksaw Ridge (2016)

In 2006, after a drunken antisemitic tirade, Mel Gibson's career should've been over. Hollywood gave him another chance. In 2010, after a drunken racist tirade, Mel's career definitely should've been over. And yet he has received another chance. I guess Hollywood just can't quit Mel. I'm torn on the topic of Gibson myself. I enjoy many of his films and performances but am disgusted by his repugnant beliefs. Mel's latest reevaluation was confirmed when the Academy showered “Hacksaw Ridge,” Gibson's latest war epic, with nominations. This is Mel's sixth or seventh chance, presumably before his next drunken tirade. While I try to separate the people from the art, one can't help but think of Gibson's personal problems while watching “Hacksaw Ridge.”

The film tells the true story of Desmond Doss, the first conscientious objector to be awarded the Medal of Honor. Born to a Seven Day Adventist and an alcoholic World War I vet, he grew up in Lynchburg, Virginia. With the on-set of World War II, Doss felt the need to serve his country. Due to his religious beliefs, he refused to commit any violent acts or even hold a weapon. Instead, he decided to serve his country as a medic. His convictions were challenged during his army training, most of the authorities baffled by his decision. Once deployed, Doss served at the Battle of Okinawa, where he personally saved the lives of at least 75 men.

Before I get to the numerous aspects of “Hacksaw Ridge” that troubled me, let's talk about the one thing in the film I really liked. Andrew Garfield plays Desmond Doss as a paragon of sincerity, sensitivity, and conviction. It's the kind of part that, in the wrong hands, could've come off as obnoxiously righteous or implausibly pure. Garfield, however, finds the perfect balance, playing Doss as a man steady in his beliefs but full of doubts and haunted by his mistakes. The only real flaw in Garfield's performance is a mildly humorous scene where Doss looses his temper and the unconvincing Southern accent he adopts. I have visited Lynchburg many times. The people there don't sound like that.

It's a good thing that Garfield is great because the rest of “Hacksaw Ridge” raises some unnerving connotations that I just can't shake. Upon entering basic training, Doss is constantly questioned about his belief. When he refuses to hold a rifle, he's sent off to a commanding officer and told to resign. He refuses, leading to the other men in his unit harassing him and even beating him black and blue in one scene. Doss is ultimately threatened with a court marshal and thrown in military prison, missing his own wedding. Only a last minute, dramatic appeal from his father prevents him from being thrown out. Knowing Gibson's background as an ultraconversative, traditionalist Catholic, one can't help but see this as a story of a “persecuted Christian,” attacked by a corrupt culture that doesn't share his beliefs. Not only is that a narrative that we sure as fuck don't need right now, it's one that has always bugged the shit out of me.

Mel Gibson's fascination with violence, and the disturbing ways that fascination permeates his religious beliefs, is no secret. Despite ostensibly being about Doss' pacifist ways, “Hacksaw Ridge” is intensely violent. Heads are blown apart. Limbs are blasted away to bloody stumps. Guts are strewn on the ground. Rats nibble on corpses. Mines and grenades reduce men to pulp, severed feet and viscera tossed into the camera. Men are set ablaze in slow motion. Of course “Hacksaw Ridge” is violent. It's a war movie. What sticks in my teeth is the treatment of that violence. The camera lingers on it, too proud of its gory work to look away. There are unlikely moments, like a man kicking a grenade back. Or, in an especially ridiculous scene, someone picking up a bloodied torso and using it as a human shield. “Hacksaw Ridge” doesn't focus on the bloodshed to make a point about the horrors of war. It just seems to like it. Which seems at odds with Doss' beliefs.

My reservations with “Hacksaw Ridge” doesn't end there. I understand that the battlefield is a difficult place, where men put aside common decency to kill one another. Yet the film's treatment of the Japanese soldiers strikes me as simplistic and possibly offensive. The Japanese are portrayed as mad, raving attackers. They strike like a heavily armed zombie horde, cutting down American men while snarling, spitting, and screaming. They are so evil that, after raising a white flag of surrender, several Japanese soldiers attempt a suicide attack. This does not feel like the most nuanced treatment of a very serious subject. Typically, Mel lingers on the commanding officer committing seppuku, showing his decapitated head landing in his lap. Doss does rescue several Japanese soldiers throughout the battle but, a minor character tells us, “they didn't make it.” War is war but robbing the enemy of their humanity turns a piece of art into a work of jingoism.

“Hacksaw Ridge” makes statements about the power of faith and the need for charity. At the same time, it features action movie worthy sequences of bad guys getting bloodily gunned down in rows. This is a deeply conflicted film that wants to send the message about Doss' heroism. It's so determined to spread that story that it ends with actual footage of the man. Simultaneously, the film can't help but indulge in incredibly graphic action theatrics. Kind of what I imagine Mel Gibson's soul looks like, though with a lot less Jew bashing. Garfield is great and the film certainly contains effective moments. Yet the intrinsic divide in its approach is too wide to leave the viewer with a satisfying feeling. [5/10]

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