hacksaw ridge (2016)
Hacksaw Ridge seems to aspire to be a bloodier John Ford war movie. Based on a true figure, it has an inherently unreal, almost cartoonish, quality to it throughout that results in a WWII fairy tale. It plays like a story someone would tell about their youth when the sun is setting on their time on Earth, likely because it is. The film achieves a power in the sequences Gibson is obviously most excited to shoot, the big battle on Hacksaw Ridge. WWII is a fertile time in history that has blended seamlessly into a genre over the years (like the western), it's a powerful moment as it is the moment in time that characterized the twentieth century for the world, setting up the narrative for the decades to come. The more we revisit it, the more exaggerated it becomes, the more of its cast and crew have only read about it in books and seen movies about it, and the more removed form reality the whole thing becomes. Gibson, then, makes the correct choice here to embrace it rather than deny it. He also lives in the epic battle for much of the runtime and maintains tension for the duration. Almost the entirety of the plot and characters are done away with after the first act and we move on to the war, never to return to the earlier storylines, which would have been wholly unnecessary. The film's opening act, while charming in ways, is mired by lackluster performances and sequences, its inclusion is practically obligatory. The most successful element of the picture depicts the war-rabid culture and its hatred of 'outsiders'. Gibson here examines the concept of an enemy, an aggressor and what causes the shift in view.
The concept of family, countrymen and loyalty morphs quickly into that of an enemy early in the film as the alcoholic father shape-shifts from loyal and loving figure to a deadly force of rage. Our hero, of course, learns his scruples in this instant as he stands between his parents and defends his mother from the abuse. Aiming a gun at the father he loves changes our hero's worldview forever. Gibson is refreshingly unironic in his portrayals here, which is what makes the film feel so classic and genuine, there isn't a hint of sarcasm about the morality, no peer pressure to make the subject matter tongue-in-cheek. Gibson does away with any hint of attempting to be intellectual and bases his film on the wide-eyed values of a good old boy, choosing to see the world through the protagonist's eyes rather than attempting to side with the audience against his own characters. When the film commits like this, it is difficult to deny its power. Embracing this, however, proves to be a double edged sword as just as much of the film works as doesn't. The characterizations are ham-fisted and hokey in many places. As the figure from whom this oft-stilted world originates, it is easier to handle Garfield's upbeat, goofy grin than it is to stomach the cheese-filled 'tough guy' tropes emanating from the rest of the platoon. The film shines, again, during battle, as it is as genuine here as anywhere. We see people we've come (while not fully to know) to recognize throughout the opening act live and die seemingly at random. Gibson, again, keeps this firmly in place, there is little in the way of survival-by-merit going on here. It's a positive for the film, as Gibson plays against Hollywood logic that sins committed in the first half of the film (vanity, cruelty, etc.) will not come to play out as story logic for who lives, dies, and how brutally they die. This trend has been quickly vanishing from Hollywood action films, and was one of the major talking points around Jurassic World, Hacksaw Ridge does much to dispense with it. As the film proceeds, the first act practically washes away as backstory, we've really been given two films here, although the two volumes compliment one another. As we descend into the night after the battle and get to our hero's real heroism, Hacksaw Ridge comes into full view for the rousing picture that it is, detailing, if clumsily at times, a pure heart at war.
It's a love letter to the virtuous soldier. Gibson makes no attempts to bring it any further than that whether into the light of commentary on the present warfare, rather he allows the timelessness of a good-hearted man in a sea of bloodthirsty men speak for itself. It's an excellent effort as a film and places itself in the pantheon of good, if not great, war movies. It's a genre picture through and through and chooses to revive old tropes rather than invent. Still, it's a welcome addition, somehow able to walk the line of shedding war-movie cynicism without adopting old-time 'celebration of glorious' combat either. This is still an anti-war picture. Gibson may stand against war, but his love for cartoonish violence is also on full display, just as genuine as the rest of the proceedings of course.