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Venice Film Review: Mel Gibson’s ‘Hacksaw Ridge’

Director Mel Gibson attends the photocall of the movie “Hacksaw Ridge” presented out of competition at the 73rd Venice Film Festival yesterday at Venice Lido.
Director Mel Gibson attends the photocall of the movie “Hacksaw Ridge” presented out of competition at the 73rd Venice Film Festival yesterday at Venice Lido.

Mel Gibson’s “Hacksaw Ridge,” which premiered yesterday at the 73rd International Venice Film Festival, is a brutally effective, bristlingly idiosyncratic combat saga-the true story of a man of peace caught up in the inferno of the Second World War. It’s the first movie Gibson has directed since “Apocalypto,” 10 years ago (a film he’d already shot before the scandals that engulfed him), and this November, when it opens and has a good chance to become a player during awards season, it will likely prove the first film in a decade that marks his re-entry into the heart of the industry. Yet to say that “Hacksaw Ridge” finally leaves the Gibson scandals behind isn’t quite right; it has been made in their shadow. On some not-so-hard-to-read level, the film is conceived and presented as an act of atonement.

It should be obvious by now that the question of whether we can separate a popular actor or filmmaker’s off-screen life from his on-screen art doesn’t have a one-size-fits-all answer. Every instance is different. In the case of Mel Gibson, what we saw a number of years ago-first in his anti-Semitic comments, then in leaked recordings of his phone conversations-wasn’t simply “objectionable” thoughts, but a rage that suggested he had a temperament of emotional violence, one that reverberated throughout his two most prominent films as a director: “The Passion of the Christ,” a sensational and, in many quarters, unfairly disdained religious psychodrama that was a serious attempt to grapple with the stakes of Christ’s sacrifice; and “Apocalypto,” a fanciful but mesmerizing Mayan adventure steeped to the bone in the ambiguous allure of violence.

Reality of violence
Like those two movies, “Hacksaw Ridge” is the work of a director possessed by the reality of violence as an unholy yet unavoidable truth. The film takes its title from a patch of battleground in Japan, at the top of a 100-foot cliff, that’s all mud and branches and bunkers and foxholes, and where the fight, when it arrives (one hour into the movie), is cataclysmic in the terrifying shock and gruesomeness of its horror. Against the nonstop clatter of machine-gun fire, hand grenades explode with random force, blowing off limbs and blasting bodies in two, and fire is everywhere, erupting from the bombs and the tips of flame-throwers. Bullets rip through helmets and chests, and half-dead soldiers sprawl on the ground, their guts hanging out like hamburger.

Yet at the center of this modern hell of machine-tooled chaos and pain, there is Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), a soldier who refuses to carry a gun because it is against his values. He’s a conscientious objector who acts as a medic. Yet because he’s as devoted to serving in the war as he is to never firing a bullet, he isn’t just caring for soldiers. He’s on the front lines, in the thick of the thick of it, without a weapon to protect him, and the film salutes and exalts not merely his courage but his whole withdrawal from violence. There really was a Desmond Doss, and the film sticks scrupulously close to the facts of his story.

Heart of its design
Yet at the heart of its design, there is something overtly programmatic about “Hacksaw Ridge”-a movie that asks the audience to immerse itself in the violent madness of war and, at the same time, that roots its drama in the impeccable moral valor of a man who, by the grace of his own spirit, refuses to have anything to do with violence. You could argue that Gibson, as a filmmaker, is having his bloody cake and eating it too-but the less cynical (and more accurate) way to put it might be that “Hacksaw Ridge” has been conceived and presented as a ritual of renunciation. The film stands on its own (if you’d never heard of Mel Gibson, it would work just fine), yet there’s no point in denying that it also works on the level of Gibsonian optics-that it speaks, on some spiritual-metaphorical level, to the troubles that have defined him that he’s now making a bid to transcend.

Will audiences, and the powers of Hollywood, now meet him halfway? One reason the likely answer is “yes” is that “Hacksaw Ridge,” unlike such landmarks of combat cinema as “Saving Private Ryan,” “Platoon,” or “Full Metal Jacket,” isn’t simply an immersive war film. It is also a carefully carpentered drama of moral struggle that, for its first hour, almost feels like it could have been made in the 1950s. It’s a movie that spells out its themes with a kind of user-friendly homespun clarity. We see Desmond as a boy, growing up in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia with a drunken, violent father and a mother he’s driven to protect. Early on, Desmond gets into a fight with his brother and hits him in the head with a brick, and that incident, which leaves him reeling in sorrow and guilt, is the film’s version of one of those events that, in an old Hollywood movie, form the cornerstone a person’s character.

Complex man
It seems, perhaps, a bit pat, but as soon as Demond grows up and Andrew Garfield starts playing him, the actor, all aw-shucks modesty and lanky charm, wins us over to seeing Desmond as country boy of captivating conviction. He knows nothing about girls, yet woos a lovely local nurse (Teresa Palmer) with a fumbling sincerity that wins her over, and when the the war arrives, he enlists, just like his brother, because he feels he has no choice not to. That difficult father of his is played by Hugo Weaving, who makes him a complex man: a hard case who tries to keep his family in line with the belt, and even the pistol, but he’s also a veteran of World War I who is desperate to keep his sons alive.

The film really finds its old-fashioned pulse when it lands it boot camp, where Desmond proves to be a contradiction that no one there-not his fellow soldiers, let alone the officers-can begin to understand. He’s an eager, good-guy recruit who refuses to even pick up a rifle even for target practice. For a while, the film is strikingly reminiscent of the legendary Parris Island boot-camp sequence in “Full Metal Jacket,” only this is the WWII, so it’s less nihilistic, with Vince Vaughn, as the drill sergeant, making the wholesome version of the usual hazing insults; he looks at Demond and barks, “I have seen stalks of corn with better physiques.” (Hence Demond’s Army nickname: Cornstalk.) In many ways, the film feels like an old studio-system platoon movie, but when Desmond’s pacifism becomes a political issue within the Army, it turns into a kind of turbulent ethical melodrama-one can almost imagine it as a military courtroom movie directed by Otto Preminger and starring Montgomery Clift.

Fellow soldiers
The issue is whether the Army will allow Demond, on his own terms, to remain a soldier-a conscientious objector who nevertheless wants to go to war. In a sense, the dramatic issue is a tad hazy, since Desmond announces, from the outset, that he wants to be a medic. Why can’t he just become one? But one of the strengths of “Hacksaw Ridge” is that it never caricatures the military brass’s objections to his plan. On the battlefront without a weapon, Desmond could conceivably be placing his fellow soldiers in harm’s way. What he wants to do is noble, but it doesn’t fit in with the regulation (and the Army, of course, is all about regulations). So he is threatened with a court martial. The way this is finally resolved is quietly moving, not to mention just.

And then…the hell of war. It’s 1945, and the soldiers from Desmond’s platoon join forces with other troops to take Hacksaw Ridge, a crucial stretch-it looks like a Japanese version of the land above the Normandy beach-that can lead them, potentially, to a victory in Okinawa, and the beginning of the end of the war. Gibson’s staging of combat has enough fierce shock and horror to earn comparison to the famous opening sequence of “Saving Private Ryan,” though it must be said that he never matches Spielberg’s virtuosity. Yet he creates a blistering cinematic battleground all his own. Every time the fight breaks out again, it’s so relentless that you wonder how anyone could survive it.

Real drama
But, of course, the real story that “Hacksaw Ridge” is telling is Demond’s, and Gibson stages it with no-frills straightforwardness, and without necessarily finding anything revelatory in the sight of his valiant medic hero administering to his fellow soldiers, tying their blown-off limbs with tourniquets, giving them shots of morphine, and dragging them to safety. In a sense, the real drama is a nobility that won’t speak its name: It’s the depth of Demond’s fearlessness, which we believe in, thanks to Garfield’s reverent performance, but which doesn’t create a combat drama riveting enough to rival the classic war movies of our time. This isn’t a great one; it’s just a good one (which is nothing to sneeze at).

Demond devises a way to save lives by putting a rope around soldiers and lowering them down the vertical stone cliff that borders Hacksaw Ridge, and he ends up saving a lot of them. Desmond Doss, who saved 75 men at Hacksaw Ridge, wound up becoming the first conscientious objector to receive the Medal of Honor, and Gibson has made a movie that’s a fitting tribute to him (at the end, he features touching footage of the real Doss). But one surprise, given the whole drama of pacifism-versus-war that the movie sets up, is that there’s never a single scene in which has to consider violating his principles and picking up a weapon to save himself or somebody else. A scene like that would have brought the two sides of “Hacksaw Ridge,” the violent and the pacifist-and, implicitly, the two sides of Mel Gibson crashing together. But that would have been a different movie. One that, in the end, was a little less safe.-Reuters

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