It must take a special kind of insanity to willingly go to a theater to see a movie you’re 90% sure you won’t like out of some strange belief that you need to be involved in “the conversation.” That’s especially true when you’re under no professional obligation to see anything and the range of people who care about your opinions is… limited. Still, for whatever reason I do feel a certain pressure to go see certain movies that have a degree of relevance critically or commercially or in awards season. In the case of Mel Gibson’s new movie Hacksaw Ridge I was desperately afraid that would end up happening. The film’s trailer makes it look awful; like the worst kind of pandering mess made to appeal to the lowest common denominator and I was desperately afraid that it would become a big red state hit along the lines of an American Sniper or Gibson’s own The Passion of the Christ, but that never really ended up happening. The movie actually did end up earning a good sixty million dollars at the box office, but it certainly wasn’t an unavoidable sensation. Oddly enough, the critics were actually more enthusiastic or at least they were a lot less harsh on it than I expected, but they weren’t swaying me either. What did finally force me to break down and see the damn thing were the award bodies. Somehow the movie managed to make it to the National Board of Review’s top ten, and then it was nominated for a BFCA award, and then it somehow even managed to get a best picture nomination from the Golden Globes. What the hell? I’m now pretty worried the thing could somehow get an Oscar nomination (if The Blind Side could do it…), and given that I felt I had to see the movie so that I could complain about its success with credibility.
The film tells the true story of Desmond T. Doss (Andrew Garfield), a man who grew up in rural Virginia in the Seventh Day Adventist church and believed in a strict form of pacifism because of this and because his father Tom Doss (Hugo Weaving) had awful experiences during the First World War. However, once World War II began, Doss felt much the same obligation to fight as his peers did and as such he enlisted but only under the provision that he be trained to be a medic and not be forced to personally fight or even carry a weapon into battle. This is met with skepticism by his fellow cadets as well as his drill instructor Sargent Howell (Vince Vaughn), and he’s even sent to face a court martial for his unorthodox demands, but eventually he gets his way and he’s deployed with the rest of his unit to Okinawa where they’re all asked to take over a heavily fortified position at the top of a steep ridge… the Hacksaw Ridge.
Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan has to have been one of the most influential movies released in my lifetime. Before that movie there really weren’t that many World War II combat movies being made at all and the ones that were getting made didn’t look anything like the ones that have been made since. Today it’s pretty much impossible to depict that war without muted colors, graphic violence, and soldiers who don’t look like action heroes. However, time has dulled the effect of this style and what was once exhilaratingly original is now kind of a cliché. Between Flags For Our Fathers, Fury, Pearl Harbor, Enemy at the Gates, Defiance, Windtalkers, Miracle at Saint Anna, two separate “Band of Brothers” series, and various video games I kind of feel like this style has been run into the ground. That’s not to say that filmmakers absolutely need to stop making their World War II battles like this, just that this kind of spectacle alone does not really impress me anymore and I need the film itself to be doing more. That is a problem for Hacksaw Ridge given that it’s one and only really redeeming feature is that much of its second half consists of an elaborate re-enactment of the battle atop Hacksaw Ridge, which is admittedly pretty well staged but adds almost nothing to the usual WW2 battle formula outside of its general size and the amount of screen time it takes up. This sequence is notably gory even by modern war film standards, which isn’t an inherently incorrect decision given that the film wants to juxtapose the main character’s pacifism with the horrors of war, but Mel Gibson has long had something of a sadistic streak in his directorial efforts and it’s not hard to question his motives here.
It’s a good thing that the film eventually does at least become a serviceable battle movie because pretty much everything else about the movie absolutely sucks. Andrew Garfield, an actor whose talents are increasingly appearing to be rather suspect plays Desmond T. Doss as the most punchably earnest sap that you could ever imagine. His accent seems notably phony (a problem the movie has in general given that almost all the actors except Garfield and Vince Vaughn are from Australia) and Garfield never really makes this character seem believable or grounded. Granted this is partly the fault of the material he has to work with, which can charitably be described as hagiographic. If there’s any moral gray area in Doss’ decision to conduct himself in the way he did, the movie completely dismisses it in its pursuit of canonizing this guy. Also, make no mistake, the fact that this guy was a pacifist is not really what the movie finds so admirable about him. The movie does not give a damn about universally ending warfare and is very much of the belief that Japanese violence needed to be met with violence. What the movie really likes about Doss is that he was unapologetically religious and that he “stuck to his guns” on the topic. The film was clearly designed to do well with the “faith-based” audience and I’m thinking that the goal was for evangelical audiences to view the film as a sort of allegory for their own struggles in the face of public ridicule as they protest the teaching of evolution or picket abortion clinics or whatever the fuck those people are doing now.
Really there’s no limit to how corny this movie’s first half is with its goofy flashbacks, half-assed romance sub-plot, and silly court room theatrics. It’s perhaps a testament to Gibson’s skills as a filmmaker that the movie ends up feeling bad rather than howlingly terrible by the time it ends, which is the result of a combination of that battle scene being pretty decent and just a sort of Stockholm syndrome that makes you inured to some of its dumber elements by the time you get to that second half, but make no mistake this is not a good movie. It’s easily Mel Gibson’s worst directorial effort and I’m genuinely baffled that so many critics have completely given this thing a pass and that these awards bodies are giving it the time of day at all. I for one would genuinely rather re-watch Pearl Harbor than sit through this thing again.