Hacksaw Ridge (2016)
Starring- Andrew Garfield, Vince Vaughn, Sam Worthington, Luke Bracey, Hugo Weaving, Ryan Corr, Teresa Palmer, Rachel Griffiths, Richard Roxburgh, Luke Pegler, Richard Pyros, Ben Mingay, Firass Dirani, Damien Thomlinson, Matt Nable, Robert Morgan, Nathaniel Buzolic
Director- Mel Gibson
R- intense prolonged realistically graphic sequences of war violence including grisly bloody images
Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) voluntarily joins the U.S. Army during World War II — despite being a pacifist — and is deployed in Okinawa as an unarmed combat medic universally hated by his brothers-in-arms.
Hacksaw Ridge is, on occasion, absolutely gripping, and also deeply flawed, and this is my best attempt at accounting for it: Desmond Doss’s story is extraordinarily powerful, and Mel Gibson is the wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong person to tell it. And we probably should have seen that coming.
It makes sense of you think of Hacksaw Ridge as a war movie — Gibson has plentiful experience in that genre, is one of the prototypical masculine directors (and has an old-school sensibility that harkens back to the stoic Americanism of the Golden Age, married to modern directorial stylings), and has proven more than capable of staging thoroughly impressive battle scenes. And for what it’s worth, Gibson is at least a competent storyteller — not a great one, and his approach is a little simplistic, but he can get the job done. So if you need a big war movie, you could do a whole lot worse.
But a war movie is not just a war movie, not if it’s any good, anyway, and Hacksaw Ridge, at its core, is really a drama wrestling with the complexities of pacifism in wartime. Framed that way, it’s easy to see how Gibson’s sensibility might be, uh…imperfect.
I’ve said in the past — recently, in fact — that I’m not fond of attempts to psychologize someone on the basis of their artwork; at the end of the day, it’s just too complicated. You have to parse the accidental messaging and the intentional messaging and then filter it through the myriad difficulties of telling a good story; and that’s before you account for the fact that movies are made by a whole lot of people, all of whom are coming at it from different angles. However, with Gibson, we have an extensive body of work with pretty consistent themes, as well as some real-world context that sheds further light, and while I’m not going to attempt to probe the depths of his worldview based on that, can we all at least agree that he’s probably not a pacifist? Which doesn’t disqualify him from making this movie, for the record. For starters, how many directors — how many people — are true pacifists to begin with? I’m guessing not many. And moreover, plenty of great art has been made by people trying to understand something that’s foreign to them. However, it’s also fair to say that most people at least have questions about violence in wartime — the real world doesn’t make it easy to separate sides into good guys and bad guys, and even in the rare instances when it does (and it’s not far-fetched at all to argue that World War II was one of those times), some of the good guys will do bad things, and everyone is going to disagree about where to draw the line that you can’t cross. There’s a reason for the old warning about fighting monsters, after all. In short, most people aren’t committed pacifists by Desmond Doss, but most of them can at least be said to have a stance on violence that’s complicated and frequently prickles the conscience.
Maybe the same is true of Gibson, maybe it isn’t. I’m not here to talk about him. His movies, on the other hand, have tended not to view the subject with a lot of nuance. I mean, have you seen Braveheart? That movie is first on the list of acclaimed classics I despise, and that’s primarily because of its insistence that violence is the most awesome thing ever, except when it happens to you. That movie is a combination of revenge and torture porn that disguised itself as a historical epic and somehow rode that wave to awards success. If you remade it as science fiction, we’d call it a B-movie. It combines an inspiring, uplifting, heroes vs. villains tone with incredibly brutal, realistic, and relentless violence, and there’s never a sense that the disconnect is intentional — except for when the heroes are dying, you don’t get the sense that this disturbing violence is actually supposed to be disturbing.
Hacksaw Ridge doesn’t fall into that trap. It’s sober about the realities of war and usually doesn’t feel like it’s trying to be a good time. Its inspiring moments are, for the most part, rooted in its protagonist saving lives rather than taking them. However, it’s — somewhat unsurprisingly — ill-equipped to actually address its central themes. And that results in a movie that’s much, much less interesting than it could have been. Like I said — most of us have a troubled relationship with the ethics of war; I certainly do. It is, to an extent, an unanswerable question, and therefore one with which a movie can do a lot, regardless of its angle of approach.
But Hacksaw Ridge seems as though it doesn’t quite understand the moral underpinnings of pacifism. It struggles to root Doss’s conscientious objection in actual conscience — it doesn’t stand on moral principle, his appreciation for the value of human life, or other philosophical notions. Its foundation, instead, is exclusively religious — Doss does not commit violence because God told him not to. The movie seems unable to articulate any other reason why someone might choose the path of the pacifist. Doss, as portrayed here, seems like someone who wouldn’t think twice about joining the war effort as a soldier if he was exactly the same person but non-religious. It’s just God’s rules. And like any rules people follow exclusively because of a belief that God said so, they turn out to have a lot of loopholes. Desmond Doss cannot kill people, but he can shove someone into another soldier’s line of fire. Desmond Doss cannot kill people, but he can act as a distraction so others can pinpoint and shoot a sniper. He practices a very technical form of pacifism — a form that’s actually kind of irritating, because it comes across as a person who’s okay with profiting from others’ violence and just doesn’t want it to hang over his own conscience. (Again, talking about the character here, not the real Desmond Doss.)
This sounds like philosophical criticism, but I’m actually speaking almost entirely from a narrative perspective. The decision to root Doss’s objection in religious convictions and little else means that the character fundamentally isn’t wrestling with anything interesting — his worldview isn’t challenged because it isn’t really a worldview, or at the very least, it’s a worldview that he’s simply borrowed from other sources. He and the other characters can’t debate the morality of what he’s doing; they question him, and he just says, “Eh, God said so, whatcha gonna do?” (In fairness, there are scenes toward the end of the movie that suggest a moral passion for the lives of others, but it’s much too late to have any substantive impact on the film as a whole.) And the movie also takes his faith as a given and so doesn’t dive into potentially interesting religious questions either.
Instead, the movie centers its arc externally — Doss doesn’t change; his comrades do, coming to see that his pacifism (however technical it may be) is not cowardice but the polar opposite. And dramatically speaking, there’s nothing wrong with that decision. It works. Seeing Doss save his fellow soldiers at great personal risk, seeing them go from despising him to viewing him as a hero and good luck charm of sorts, is uplifting and makes for some quality cinema. But it’s an arc that completes itself after the characters’ first combat engagement, when they finally see how far he’ll go to save any one of them, and there’s still an hour of movie left after that. It’s worth mentioning that the battle of Hacksaw Ridge comprises most of this movie, and once the soldiers come around to Doss’s heroism, there is very little to sustain that. Past a certain point, it all turns into noise. So my problem with the film’s inability to grapple with pacifism and violence and the ethics of both is, ultimately, only partially philosophical; it’s mainly because strength on that point would make the movie much more interesting and memorable. It would give Doss something to wrestle with; it would increase the stakes in his ongoing debate with the other soldiers; it would make every decision a challenge, every lost life a reason to reflect upon his moral code. The movie seems like it’s at war with itself — its ending has two triumphant moments, the first derived from Doss saving his comrades’ life and the second sweeping spectacle celebrating the violent overthrow of the Japanese on the ridge — and expanding upon those themes might make that effect seem intentional, a deliberate effort to pull viewers apart over what they’re seeing, to force them to think about the complicated questions it’s asking. Instead, it navigates around the difficult stuff in favor of something that’s mostly effective but simple, and a far cry from what it could be.
It has other problems that mostly aren’t worth elaboration — the usual war movie problem where a dozen soldiers are introduced to us at once and then lost in the fog of war to the point that no one other than Doss (and, depending on the extent of the chaos, sometimes not even him) is even capable of mattering; the way it keeps leaving its perspective character for minutes at a time because it’s more interested in the larger spectacle of the battle; the way it sets up this complicated (and actually interesting) family drama and then abandons it. It has strengths, too — Gibson’s direction remains strong, Andrew Garfield is pretty good (not good enough that he’d make my Oscar shortlist, but good enough that I can’t complain — although being nominated for this and not The Social Network is one of those things I suspect history will look back on with some small amount of confusion), its most basic storytelling interests are solid enough even if they don’t quite make it the extra mile.
Hacksaw Ridge gets far enough that I can confidently call it good. Modern war movies tend to be arty or bad, with not a lot in the middle, so I can see why audiences are so enamored with Hacksaw Ridge — it’s solid and essentially popular in its style. I just don’t think it’s great, and it’s close enough to the line to become a bit frustrating — you can see a much better movie trying to escape from its confines. But it’s an impressive calling card as comeback projects go. Maybe you think he deserves it, maybe you don’t; either way, Mel Gibson is definitely back.