Mel Gibson jumps back in the director’s chair and Andrew Garfield appears as a character driven by Christianity for the second time in a month! Lee reviews Best Picture nominee Hacksaw Ridge.
As the biopic is not documentary, it can take liberties in the presentation of history and historical people; not shocking news to anyone who has ever seen Anonymous or Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Skipping details, exaggerating moments, constructing narrative pillars in the life of a person who would otherwise not have such constructs; the list goes on. What we must ask is whether these romanticised/fantastical additions aide, justify or capture the essence of the person or time they intend to portray?
Director Mel Gibson makes a few smart choices right off the bat with Hacksaw Ridge: by establishing a sense of poetic license with the story of Desmond Doss, a moral superhero right down to the alliterative name, we capture more the essence of how Doss would probably have liked the stories to be told and remembered. The squeaky-clean 1940s, the old-fashioned lovers who fall for each other, the rough childhood that only ever flashes to the important parts and Desmond’s love affair with God; it paints a clear picture of a man who was perhaps simple, but dedicated to what he believed in. Gibson stylistically pairs this story with an intense, gory war thriller to great effect, creating a nauseating heel-turn in tone that brings absolute threat to Desmond’s position in this story, raises the feat of his accomplishments higher and creates a spectacle that is sure to peak audience attention.
But beyond the surface accomplishments, Hacksaw Ridge suffers a number of conflicts between the story it should be telling and the story it feels like it has to be telling. The story of Desmond Doss the Conscious Objector forms the heart and intention of the narrative, but feels at severe odds with the underlying narrative: a war film with war conventions because that’s what war films do. We go to World War II and we show those animal Japs what-for, and it’s surprisingly as straightforward as that despite the fact that we even get a glimpse of Desmond taking pity on them and treating them like he would his own, before the film jumps back in for another round of trying to get catharsis murdering Japanese soldiers by the hundreds.
More than that, our ending has nothing to do with Desmond; it’s a montage of accomplishment for the US army with our character somewhere in the background. Whole threads of his story left up in the air to either be resolved in a post-film credit sequence (like what happens to the fiancée who plays a big part in the first half of the film) or not at all (like what happens to his abusive father, supportive mother, brother who also enlisted; all of whom play a huge part in Desmond’s identity and core set of beliefs). The story confuses why we were watching this film in the first place: we like Desmond. We never liked war, so why would we feel catharsis when it takes centre stage for the finale?
Christianity plays a big part in the story too, Desmond Doss being raised a Seventh-day Adventist, and so it fits and makes for some touching scenes that, to accomplish his most incredible feat at war, he relies heavily on his faith to make it through. What doesn’t fit, however, are the scenes in which Desmond is miraculously spoken to by God or manages to lead a divine charge from the troops by blessing them with God’s almighty power. Here, and in a few stray lines of dialogue, the film attempts to push an agenda that takes much of Desmond’s agency from him and, humble while the real man was in accrediting his accomplishments to God, that doesn’t innately make him a Jesus figure who, through the power of prayer, can finally aide the Allies in murdering more Japanese. It’s bizarrely tone-deaf to the beliefs of the man the movie portrays, and is wholly at odds with the character story that gives the majority of the romanticism its charm and edge.
Other general issues, like framing a narrative around a man who never at any point changes or adapts, idolising where it should commend and exemplify as well as skipping out on some much needed humanity, as well as some time-skip and narration choices that never resurface or justify themselves, all lead to a film that sours much of the good will it earns from the smart choices.
The camerawork is solid, the acting great, the characters likeable, the settings memorable; it culminates in a film that is certainly watchable, even generally recommendable, but ultimately shallow and, occasionally, manipulative. The essence is captured and then, perhaps accidentally, maligned. Gibson reaches here for a timely classic and only manages timely, unfortunately.