IT’S LITTLE WONDER that “Hackshaw Ridge”, Mel Gibson’s war-porn new movie, is on the Oscar hot list (up for Best Actor, Best Director, Film Editing, Best Picture, Sound Editing and Sound Mixing). Its mix of religion, romance, raw violence and (Mel’s) restitution, makes it a sure-fire Hollywood hit. From Ben Affleck to Matthew McConaughey, Hollywood just loves a good comeback, that quintessential American second act.
The tale is centered around the true story of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), a conscientious objector, who, shouldering bullying and taunts of cowardice still went unarmed into the heart of hell with the aim not to kill but to heal. As he says at his Court Martial trial, “With the world so set on tearing itself apart, don’t seem like such a bad thing, to me, to want to put a little bit of it back together”. And so, even as his fellow soldiers were shot, blown up and eviscerated by hoards of Zombie-like Japanese descending on them like a merciless killing plague, Doss worked at keeping the wounded alive. His prayers, his courage and his determination to help saw him overcome insuperable odds to save – in the line of fire, armed only with his bible (ahem!) – seventy-five soldiers. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, he said he felt personally attacked, forcing him to join his fellow grunts in what for him was an act of pacifist revenge.
He’s also a superhumanly GOOD, unblemished man. No wonder the gentle, caring, sympathetic, loyal town beauty (Teresa Palmer) fell so head over heels for him.
This isn’t a subtle and nuanced story. And Mel underlines its contrasts in heavy (blood red) ink: love v war; pacificism v violence; God v the devil (as the Japanese are referred to); winner (America) v loser (The Japanese); cowardice v heroism. And in even heavier ink, he ensures that you are left in no doubt as to goriness of war. We see limbs blown off, heads exploding, entrails squelching underfoot and gushing fountains of blood. But through it all, Doss and his convictions hold steady. IT’S A TRUE STORY. So no need to underline too heavily (in the script) that you-know-who had wrapped a protective field, call it halo, around our hero. In one of the last scenes, our hero is lowered on a stretcher into the waiting arms of his colleagues. It’s the descent to earth from heaven.
Many years ago, the mother of all film criticism, the American Pauline Kael, dammed the incredibly popular Dirty Harry genre as a kind of Hollywood right wing fascism (Mark Wahlberg is one if its latest incarnations). She condemned its simple-minded narrative of macho justice, its fetishization of the gun and its clear binary code of right and wrong. To many artists (Spielberg for instance) WWII was a moment in history whose investigation could ferret out subtle and profound truths. To others (Mel and “Hackshaw Ridge”) that war (when the enemy was so heinous) has become an easy excuse for triumphalism and posturing…when a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do… and a nifty slight of hand excusing all those other wars. Under its fog, so many other less glorious wars lie hidden.
But there’s no denying it. Mel, like Clint Eastwood and Peter Berg, is a ruthlessly efficient director. There’s no flabbiness in the storytelling; the script is spare and to the point. The tear-jerk emotions are dialled up to just the right pitch. And nobody does death better. Gibson and production designer, Barry Robinson create a visual theatre of death and destruction that’s tangibly frightening. He’s also squeezed some fine performances from his actors, especially that of Garfield (so good in “99 Homes”). As Doss, Garfield is engagingly charming; his performance morphs convincingly from aw-shucks country boy to unrelenting and steely superhero (Clark Kent?).
The problem with the enterprise is that, despite the muddy, bloody faces and spinning, splitting bodies, nothing feels honest. This movie about God and pacifism still seems to revel in the macho glory of war; Garfield’s character is a one note propaganda hero and his fine acting is, in a movie like this, no more than another form of collateral damage; the viciousness of the battle scenes feels storyboarded to the point of aesthetic preciousness. It all appears just a mainstreaming of Gibson’s esoteric Aramaic obsession
HACKSHAW RIDGE. Dir: Mel Gibson. With: Andrew Garfield, Sam Worthington, Teresa Palmer, Hugo Weaving, Vince Vaughn. Screenplay: Robert Schenkkan (“The Pacific”) and Andrew Knight (“The Water Diviner”). Cinematographer: Simon Duggan (“300: Rise of an Empire”). Production Designer: Barry Robinson (“Million Dollar Arm”)