The Film: Hacksaw Ridge
The Pitch: The Passion of the Sergeant York
Number of Nominations: 6
Which Categories? Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Editing, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing
Will it Win? Welcome Home, Mel Gibson … it’s been too long. Sure, you had a few problems, what with your drunken rants about Jews and the whole sugar-tits thing and your general air of awfulness and bigotry, but this is Hollywood, and we have a short memory, and we just love comeback stories, and you’ve been in the wilderness for so many years now, none of us can quite remember what you were doing there, and we hate to see your talents wasted in shitty B movies, and we love war movies and simplistic tales of heroism, and frankly, things are getting a little too diverse this year, if you know what I mean, so to keep things equal it’s only fair we nominate your old-fashioned God, Guts n’ Glory Epic for a few Oscars.
You’re not going to win, you understand. There’s this song and dance thing called La La Land and the kids just love it, but we’d sure love to see you on the red carpet. It’s up to you to decide if you want to shave the beard or not; maybe you’re all good looking like a hobo. Who are we to judge?
Okay, let’s make a deal, Mel. We were very impressed with how your movie sounds, with all those bullets whizzing and grenades exploding and men screaming in agony, so we might just give you the Oscar for Sound Mixing or Sound Editing … and no, we don’t really understand the difference either.
Synopsis: Desmond Doss, a Seventh-day Adventist who endured a troubled childhood in rural Virginia, enlists in the army during World War II despite his pacifist beliefs. After Desmond’s desire to serve as an unarmed medic is approved by military officials, he is sent to the Pacific arena, where he saves dozens of lives during the Battle of Okinawa.
There’s something distinctly odd about a film that supposedly venerates the principles of pacifism that is so violent and glories in every gory detail of the battlefield. Hacksaw Ridge mixes intense Saving Private Ryan-type battle scenes (arguably the film enjoys these scenes a little too much: the film opens with a slow-motion sequence of carnage that’s like a gun-nut’s wet dream) with strict moralising about how wrong it is to kill someone. While I was watching the film I was reminded of those old moralistic exploitation anti-drug flicks like Reefer Madness and Marihuana: The Devil’s Weed!, movies that lecture you about one thing but show you something else.
Hacksaw Ridge is a throwback in many ways, not least in the depiction of the army platoon, filled with boisterous 1940s types with names like Teach, Hollywood, Grease and Smitty, who all look and talk like they just stepped out of an Van Johnson movie. It’s not an anti-war movie or a film that has misgivings about the military mindset, but a film that could have sprung from the mind of a patriotic Golden Age screenwriter.
If there’s a template that Gibson and screenwriters Robert Schenkkan and Andrew Knight follow, it’s the Gary Cooper classic, Sergeant York. The two films have a lot in common: religious Deep South background, a struggle with conscience, simple folks aw shucksing and doin’ what’s right. Of course, there’s one crucial difference: Sergeant York was famous because he was very, very good at killing people, but Desmond Doss refuses to even touch a gun, which causes all sorts of trouble for him when he enlists. His commanding officer (Sam Worthington) wants him thrown out of the Army, and his drill sergeant (Vince Vaughn) does his best to make the kid’s life hell. There’s a court martial, and Doss is facing years in prison, but gosh darn it, he’s so damn plucky and he won’t give up or compromise, not even when his sweetheart (Teresa Palmer) begs him to play along with the rules.
Interestingly, Andrew Garfield also stars in another film centered around faith: Martin Scorcese’s epic Silence, and with the exception of the cinematography, that film has been ignored by the Academy. Garfield is rather good in Hacksaw Ridge, capturing the conflicted emotions of someone caught between his faith and his flag. He’s in his mid-thirties but still looks boyish, which plays well here. Plus he doesn’t look like he could lift a bag of sugar, let alone an injured man, making Doss’s achievements more remarkable.
Hacksaw Ridge is simplistic in its storytelling and in its message: Stick to Your Principles. The first half plays like a sentimental Hallmark romantic drama that somehow has ended up in the cinema. Which is not to say it’s bad (truth be told, I quite like Hallmark movies). Parts of it are very good, and there mostly the parts with Hugo Weaving as Desmond Doss’s father, a bitter alcoholic filled with guilt because he survived WWI and all his buddies didn’t.
The second half of Hacksaw Ridge is where Gibson lets loose all his macho gung-ho tendencies as a director, and it’s a gory melange of limbs blown off, bullets to the head, men on fire, and guts spilling out everywhere. It’s intense and loud and confusing, but then, so is war, right? Men die in horrible ways or are saved in miraculous ones by Doss – he even helps a couple of Japanese soldiers, and each of the men who tormented him back in the US gets to apologise for misjudging him, and humble Doss just keeps on thanking God for letting him do His work. Gibson doesn’t go quite as far as depicting Doss as Christ-like, but this is still a religiose piece of Sunday School filmmaking.
Verdict: Three Bloodstained Medics out of Five