I can almost hear the pitch on this one:
“Think Forrest Gump but with the tone of that propaganda movie from Inglorious Basterds.”
Hacksaw Ridge’s overriding aesthetic thesis seems to be that Mel Gibson figured out he could bathe in blood and gore and viscera as long as he felt willing to pay lip service to some Christian values. He knew Red State America would be willing to devour his horrifying depictions of the enemy because he was saying the right things about our boys. There’s something deeply insidious about this film, wrapped up in all the right intentions and a bow that won’t let you go.
It starts that it’s a real life story. Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) is an aw-shucks Southern boy, who loves his momma (Rachel Griffiths), his Lord, his girl Dorothy (Teresa Palmer) and his country. During the pitched heat of World War 2, Doss makes the choice to enroll in the Army to serve his country, something his WW1 veteran father (Hugo Weaving) deeply resents.
But there’s a rub you see. Doss’ faith includes a compunction against killing or holding a weapon of any kind. Which doesn’t do you a whole lot of good in the Army. He clashes with his Sergeant (Vince Vaughn), his fellow company men, and even gets court martialed. The court ultimately rules to let him become the combat medic without a weapon, and sends him and his squad off to Okinawa to battle
the bugs from Starship Trooper but without the irony Japanese forces, where Doss gets put into the middle of the brutality of war and must struggle to stay alive and save the men around him.
There’s a lot of things this movie is pretending to be.
It’s pretending to be an anti-war film, perhaps more than anything else. It’s not. Films that show the horrors of war are not anti-war by their nature, they have to earn it through actually showing the real horrors of war.
Hacksaw Ridge can’t do that because it made the choice to absolutely and savagely dehumanize its enemy. The Japanese in this film are shocking, they would have been racist by the standards of an era that had Superman “slap a jap.” They communicate solely through screaming, they take pride in killing medics and the defenseless, they live in caves underground. Hell, they don’t even die like we do. Our boys are human and have their fragile human bodies torn apart. They are not, they just have a few squibs explode no matter how they’re killed.
An anti-war film that dehumanizes its enemy is not and cannot be anti-war, because it doesn’t understand the actual horrors of war, the mass taking of other human lives and seeing other human lives taken in droves around you. All the atmosphere and effects that would have made the Italian goremasters jealous means nothing if it isn’t put into a film that coherently seeks to understand what war is and should be.
Without that, it’s propaganda. Seeking to reframe it as a necessary evil to defeat actual demons. That’s not anti-war, that’s “war sucks,” a different sentiment that excuses a host of crimes. No matter the truth, the fact is that Gibson has created a film that purports to be one thing but is deep down another.
It’s also pretending to be a film of faith. The fact is that the theology is incoherent, and Doss’ belief is founded less in any of the actual Christian anti-war thought than in what seems to be psychological damage from a difficult upbringing by his father. Just because a film is willing to say Jesus and the Lord and a character is willing to carry a Bible, that doesn’t make it about faith in any substantive way.
Even worse is an ending which turns it from a film of faith to something closer akin to the Crusades, a God telling to smite our enemies. It reframes any chance the film had at a coherent pacifist message and turns it into something twisted.
So, what is this?
Is it propaganda? I can’t say necessarily, propaganda for a different era maybe. It seems like a story of “Why We Fight,” certainly. But there’s no direct allegory, it seems to be Gibson largely commenting on an older era, expressing admiration and reframing an opinion.
Could it simply be, as I said earlier, Mel Gibson found a series of excuses? The right buttons to push to get away with making something horrific that a built in audience would rise up to defend?
It’s a shame because if I didn’t find this film’s thought processes and constructions so toxic, there might have been something worthwhile.
Gibson is a talented filmmaker for sure, and his camera captures a certain horror and tragedy that few others are capable of. If the film wasn’t so excessively manipulative and maudlin, especially in the aw-shucks Virginia life it shows and its constant need to push for tearful moments, it might have had something. Also, if he had a better script.
It has Andrew Garfield, who is earnestly giving it his all. Not a great Southern accent, but the man is acting like he has never acted before (except The Social Network, where he actually gave a great performance without straining himself). He’s going for that “Tom Hanks at the end of Captain Phillips” nomination and kudos to him. He’s got an affability that makes him well-cast. Most of the supporting cast around him is well-cast and hell, I’m just excited to see Hugo Weaving in a normal person role.
It’d be a good cast if we could just stop pretending that Vince Vaughn can be a serious actor again. The dude has lost any gravitas he had and feels so woefully miscast in this role its distracting. It’s not just that he doesn’t disappear. It’s that he actively wrecks the perception of any character he’s playing.
Your mileage may vary on this one, but this is the most insidious sort of bullshit. A toxic spewing of Gibson covering and refusing to own up to the things he does and the fact that he just wants to put sickening violence on screen and pretend it’s super Christian. The man should just make an Inquisition movie already.
Hacksaw Ridge is gonna have a whole lotta people believing it’s worth a damn, that it’s sharing their values and standing up for a good old fashioned way. Don’t believe it.
P.S. BEST PICTURE TO THE BIOPIC THAT REFUSES TO PUT THE REAL PEOPLE AT THE END.