Hacksaw Ridge

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HACKSAW RIDGE won two Oscars for its impassioned 2016 efforts and was nominated for four more. Wins for Film Editing and Sound Mixing were no surprise, as both are quality jobs, as was the justly nominated Sound Editing.  Andrew Garfield’s work drew a Best Actor ballot slot, though he had faint chance against a strong lineup. The surprise came from nominations for Best Picture—this film rates ‘good’, but nowhere close to ‘best’—and especially for Direction, since that came from the once praised, then vilified mad maxer Mel Gibson.*  

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Pearl Harbor brings America into World War II. For quiet-natured Army enlistee Desmond Doss (Garfield), his deeply held beliefs as a Seventh-day Adventist are in direct opposition to violence. He’ll serve, but won’t kill, or so much as carry a gun.  Suspected as a shirker or coward, he is tormented throughout boot camp, almost court-martialed. Volunteering as an unarmed medic, Doss’s astonishing display of duty, bravery and compassion in one of the most horrendous parts of the cataclysmic battle for Okinawa earned him the Medal of Honor. **

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The amazing Doss epic was tailor-made for a rousing movie. So how well did Mel pull it off?  Close, but no cigar. The skill he displayed in astute casting and crafting of performances in Braveheart and Apocalypto, and his eagle eye at capturing a period (in those epics and The Passion Of The Christ) gets lukewarm results here. Filmed in New South Wales, Australia (skillfully budgeting $40,000,000), almost everyone in the cast are Australians, playing Americans (Garfield was raised in England); good as they are, the tempo feels slightly off, strained for effect. Since the cast’s homegrown representative, Vince Vaughan, is also askew (and too old as well, at 46) we can shift a measure of artificiality onto Gibson’s choices of focus and at the script, which, after the first 30 of the films 139 minutes introduces Doss’ home-life, ramrods through a half-hour boot camp portion creaking with genre stereotypes and— bammo—-deadheads straight from 1942 to combat mayhem on Okinawa in 1945. Gibson’s and the writers haste to tear into the red-meat of the movie— the vivid action scenes and the hero’s stellar exploits— makes for clunky transition without enough buildup or investment. Secondary characters among the troops are barely sketched, emotional involvement is slighted. **

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Cut to the chase and stow your hankies, toots: we didn’t show up to see an anti-war movie, or even the gallant Doss being noble. We’re geared from the get-go for Gibson’s furious staging of the desperate battle for a wrinkle in Okinawan topography called the Maeda Escarpment— a.k.a. ‘Hacksaw Ridge’.

After his masterful arrangement of the medieval slugfests in Braveheart, it was a given he’d bring energy and impact to the hand-to-hand welter of WW2 Pacific island combat. After his questionable wades into extra-inflicted pain on Apocalypto and especially The Passion Of The Christ (just the descriptions of its wincing Jesus-flaying were enough to dissuade many from seeing it) the expectation was this would be either a more convincing Saving Private Ryan or a litmus test for gratuitous carnage on the Peckinpah/Woo Scale.

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In a weird way, the extravagantly choreographed, relentlessly brutal, part-clinical, part operatic orchestration of mass mayhem is simultaneously appropriate, too much, and not enough.  Its unflinching gore is appropriate–war isn’t pretty, so it shouldn’t look antiseptic. You’re shocked? Then you should have gone to La La Land.  But it is Too Much (way too much for the faint): several of the individual stunts in these complicated, impact-stuffed battle scenes feel chosen for “wow” effect, like the ‘cool’ CGI effects in Pearl Harbor. Going a squib charge too far, there’s so much splattered viscera it gets numbing, looking less like reality and more like a spaghetti western—with extra tomato sauce. That very overkill and surreal quality makes it not enough, and some of the spatial choices are glaring: he has guys so closely grouped together that one geisha with a parasol could take out an entire squad. I can’t pretend to have experienced combat, let alone the terror of a banzai charge, but reading a ton of historical accounts and a lifetime of watching war movies had me thinking “space your men, Mel” and those errors took me out of the belief zone. Undeniably impressive as pure action spectacle, the strict realism factor is dicey.  Prepared to enlist, I have to claim partial deferment.

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With Hugo Weaving (tearing it up), Sam Worthington, Luke Bracey, Teresa Palmer (a vision), Ryan Corr, Rachel Griffiths, Luke Pegler, Goran D. Kleut.  A direct hit, earning $175,000,000. Rated R for “intense prolonged realistically graphic sequences of war violence including grisly bloody images.”  Yep.

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* First stone, anyone? Ten years after his last stab at directing, general critical salutes for this sincere but flawed movie usually saw fit to mention Gibson’s…ahem..sins, before welcoming him back to industry viability, but many postmortem reactions unmasked p.c. hypocrisy.  Battalions of bleating online trolls spewed their issues with the troubled, troubling personality of the star/director rather than the film (which has its own valid problems with structure, tone and anachronism—and putting those darn GIs too damn close together! Mel, didn’t you ever watch Combat! ?)  As to Shaming Padre Gibson—if this had been directed, scene-for-scene, shot-for-shot, blood-drip-for-drop by someone who fit their political and social criteria, they’d call it a masterpiece.  Many also indulged their inner masochist with the usual rabid revisionist apologia over portraits of the Japanese soldiers (dust-busted brain cells recall we were..uh.. fighting that somewhat aggressive island nation during the 40s). This dimwitted correctness myopia, in its self-serving smugness, suits the militarist fanaticism of Imperial Nippon and the insane Code of Bushido, which conflated ‘honor’ with excusing pesky side issues like pillage, rapine, slaughter and torture of helpless captives.

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** “With the world so set on tearing itself apart, it don’t seem like such a bad thing to me to want to put a little bit of it back together.” Aside from some acceptable simplification of Doss’ home life (skipping a failed first marriage), the narrative streamlining makes a big leap by entirely leaving out the extended baptisms of fire for Doss and his outfit in Guam and The Philippines. Gibson left out some of the medic’s deeds because, while true, they were so wildly implausible he felt audiences would not believe them. With the 75 men he rescued from the maelstrom of the Maeda Escarpment, in total during three weeks on Okinawa Desmond Doss saved 300 men, and was wounded four times doing so. Guts. Faith. Miracles.

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