Originally published on July 24th, 2017
One of the worst kept and least spoken about secrets regarding awards season is that it’s just as much of a crap shoot as any other schedule block. Just this past year, the Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard WWII drama Allied didn’t have the power suggested by its skilled co-stars, Ang Lee’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk couldn’t gain any momentum and the star-studded Collateral Beauty was ripped to shreds for inspiring more laughs than tears of joy and uplift. Perhaps deservedly, Allied received a Best Costume Design nomination; the only nomination between all three. Some films, however, manage to seep through the cracks and garner more attention than they’re worth. Hacksaw Ridge is one of them.
Mel Gibson’s latest directorial feature depicts what is meant to be the inspiring story of Desmond Doss, a combat medic at the Battle of Okinawa whose selfless acts of bravery made him the first conscientious objector to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. A Seventh-Day Adventist Christian, Doss refused to carry a rifle, other firearm or any weapon, insisting his intention to serve was to save life, not take it.
It was certainly a bold stance to take given the hardened machismo sold as an inherent part of the military’s package, challenging traditional modes and definitions of masculinity in a thought-provoking manner; it’s just too bad this was the approach Gibson and Co. avoided entirely. The first half of this once Best Picture hopeful feels tragically stuck in the past, certainly not in the same way we might commend James Gray’s The Lost City of Z for its facilitating classic filmmaking methods. Uninspired storytelling, cinematography, production design and character development make the film as painfully reminiscent of Old Hollywood’s worst blockbusters as its old-fashioned moral compass.
From the outset, Gibson demonstrates in conjunction with screenwriters Robert Schenkken and Andrew Knight that he hasn’t the time for subtlety and nuance; he’d much rather beat us over the head with occasional sermonizing and overall blunt rhetoric to justify the movie’s overlong, one-dimensional examination of its fascinating historical figure. Once Doss (Andrew Garfield) arrives at Fort Jackson, the screenplay spends too much time focusing on those who’d conspire to have him thrown out rather than the potential internal difficulties he might have felt that would give his conviction greater meaning.
In all fairness, maybe Gibson’s intent was to shine a light on and emphasize those principles most of us would be too frightened to uphold, and therefore the man who humbly made them known. It doesn’t, however, help us connect to Garfield’s Doss as a human being of our equal if he’s constantly, if unwittingly placed on a pedestal most of us couldn’t reach even if we strive for it.
The film’s battle sequences, which take up a majority of the script’s back nine, are arguably its only shining moments, proving the worthiness of its Best Sound Mixing and Best Film Editing wins as well as its Best Sound Editing nomination. Aside for a handful of moments that nearly undo the graphic naturalism portrayed, these well-constructed scenes effectively depict war’s harrowing nature without glorifying or demonizing it, and instead find a middle ground that comfortably reminds us what the reality of the time was. It’d have been easy for Gibson and Co. to do either in such a way that would back up their doctrine, but thankfully they find a delicate balance ironically in something as physically non-delicate as battle.
Unfortunately, this second half unfolds in such a way that renders many of the story’s previous efforts insignificant. With the crux of the film’s climax being those doubters proved wrong by Doss’s heroism, it exposes the time wasted by the narrative when this key portion of the plot could have been set up more simply. With the script so awkwardly structured, it feels like they tried packing two movies into one, and with mixed effect at best, for that matter.
Hacksaw Ridge is perhaps a blueprint case for a prestige picture gone awry; the intentions are eschewed, as is much of the attempted substance. What it deserved it was recognized for, but you can’t help but lament that other, more noteworthy films missed out on the opportunity for the impending greatness that it was given, even if it didn’t succeed. At this point, maybe we’re all numb to Hollywood mishandling stories about fascinating individuals, or maybe our standards need to be a little higher.