Mel Gibson’s latest project.
Hacksaw Ridge tells the true story of Desmond Doss, the only conscientious objector to ever win the Medal of Honor. Doss, a pacifist, saved the lives of 75 fellow soldiers during the assault of Hacksaw Ridge after the rest of the platoon (or squad—not sure of the proper term) had been forced to retreat due to overwhelming Japanese resistance.
I am not interested in comparing the film to its historical veracity—I will leave that to others who are experts in the area. However, there is one aspect of this film that I am willing to bet had an impact on viewers, and that is Mel Gibson. After his near-legendary racist meltdowns in years past, has tainted his reputation. Some folks can say that they can separate art from artist. While I do think this is possible, it is something I am not certain I can wholly do. Further, Gibson’s trademark style is on this film, and that makes the separation even harder.
Gibson is a competent director, to say the least. There are several good shots, and the story overall works. Where my issues come are some of the pacing and overall narrative elements simply didn’t work.
One of the positive aspects of the film ends up hurting it in the end. We as the audience truly get to know Doss. Andrew Garfield plays the part well, and I must say he continues to impress me as an actor. While we know Doss, we simply do not get to know the other soldiers very well. Any emotive moments are solely through Doss’ reaction to his comrades, not ours. Further, during the explosive combative moments, Garfield often disappears, and that leaves our connection to these characters somewhat limited.
Doss deserves to be commemorated and known in our culture, but the question is whether or not this film does the best job possible. Gibson’s well-lit fable shows the horrors of war through a highly stylized and almost mechanized lens. Numerous shots of only a gun firing remove the human elements. At worst, some of the combat felt a little “videogameified” to me. We have explosions, fire, and plenty of shredded limbs around, but without the direct connection, something feels amiss.
Further, I know that Doss was treated like shit for his decision to not carry a weapon, but the movie pushes this into a bizarre forced-martyrdom feel at several points. The beginning of the film is particularly bad in hammering these points home. Despite being able to craft a good narrative, Gibson lacks a subtle touch. Moments where the film should be reflective are instead blunt. We as the audience are guided in how we are meant to react, and almost no control over how we feel is left up to us. The structure of the film is so tight in these areas that powerful moments come off as forced, sometimes rushed, and overall break the narrative power.
Unfortunately, these blocky moments in the film add a layer of cheesiness that is sometimes hard to ignore. Despite solid acting, and often strong framing of scenes, something simply feels off. Gibson’s heavy hand is extended to set designs, where it seems so ardent on appearing authentic that it almost looks like a set. Once we arrive on the island, the scenes are often so tightly filmed that we never really get an idea of the scope of the battle. These tight frames sometimes add to the claustrophobic terror that combat entails, but other times, it simply didn’t make sense.
I see people react to criticism of the film as somehow a criticism on Doss. These statements are completely ridiculous. Doss did what he did out of conviction and courage. Gibson’s character seems more bent on redemption and proof of valor at many points than simply selfless. I wonder how much of this film is an exercise in what Gibson perhaps wants us to see in him. The film rings with competency and passion, yet somehow the two did not fully connect.
This is the third of the Oscar nominated films I have seen, and none have left a profound impact on me. I knew of Doss before the film, and that might have made a difference. Each of the films seem to be working within their genre moorings. Hacksaw Ridge is a decent war film, but it does not transcend this in almost any way. Perhaps most disappointing is that this film seems to meet your expectations. Denying the audience a breadth of reaction through nuance means that folks are going to come in knowing whether or not they will like it, and they will probably not be surprised. The tightness of the film might help with audiences who are drawn to these narrative, but for those not necessarily fans or simply tired of the genre, the film stays limited. 6/10