Thursday, November 3, 2016

An honored soldier who refused to kill

Mel Gibson brings brutal violence to the story of a soldier who carried no weapon.

Anyone who as seen any of Mel Gibson's various directorial efforts should waste no time disputing Gibson's talent, even if it seems like another age when Gibson won his best-directing Oscar for Braveheart (1995).

Since then, Gibson's reputation has suffered a variety of blows, some having to do with the way he presented Jews in The Passion of the Christ and others stemming from a 2006 drunk-driving incident in which he went on an anti-Semitic rant.

Whether Gibson's Hacksaw Ridge becomes the director's moment of cultural redemption remains to be seen. But I can't deny that his movie -- particularly when it comes to its depiction of World War II fighting in the Pacific -- has rampant, chaotic power.

Gibson's Okinawa battle sequences look as if they might have been lifted from a horror movie, and should erase all doubt that war constitutes a form of lethal madness.

Gibson's camera shows that on the battlefield, human flesh can be shredded and bloodied in an instant. Men can be cut in half (literally) or set on fire by flame throwers. Corpses become nourishment for large rats.

War, we might judge, is the ultimate form of degradation: Its carnage reduces people to fear and flesh.

Well, almost ....

Gibson cannily puts the movie's violence to the service of a story about a man who refuses to kill. Hacksaw Ridge -- named for the 350-foot cliff that US soldiers scaled on Okinawa before engaging the enemy -- is a bio-pic about Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield).

Doss, a conscientious objector, insists on going into battle as a medic. He doesn't want to kill, but he also doesn't want to shirk what he sees as his duty to serve.

The early part of the film is both a corn-fed story and harsh melodrama about Doss's pre-war life in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Doss grows up with an abusive, drunken father (Hugo Weaving) and a more protective mother (Rachel Griffiths).

When he hits his brother with a brick during a boyhood fistfight, young Doss realizes that he has the capacity to kill. The brother lives, but Doss undergoes an instant transformation: No matter what the circumstances, he won't kill.

Played with smiling innocence by Garfield, the adult Doss falls for a nurse (Teresa Palmer), the woman who eventually becomes his wife. Doss's refusal to kill is bolstered by his religion: He's a Seventh Day Adventist.

Cue the faith-based hosannas that may help create the audience for Hacksaw Ridge.

The movie tries to solidify its moral framework during Doss's stint in boot camp. His drill sergeant (an unexpected Vince Vaughn) and commanding officer (a subdued Sam Worthington) are rough on him, but also show compassion. They wonder why he just doesn't leave the service and go home. Doss's persistence puzzles them.

You needn't be a seer to predict that those who scorn Doss eventually will praise the courage that won him a Medal of Honor, the first awarded to a conscientious objector.

Doss certainly earned the award. When U.S. troops pull back to regroup, Doss is left alone atop Hacksaw Ridge. He persists in dragging soldier after soldier to safety. He improvises a harness that enables him to lower the soldiers to the bottom where they can receive medical attention. He saves 75 men in all.

No one should question Doss's heroism, but it's difficult for me not to think that the movie is riven with a contradiction it can't totally resolve: a commitment to the reality of violence makes us wonder whether Gibson is firing bullets while at the same time condemning the slaughter.

And although Doss does at one point help a Japanese soldier, there's little attempt -- as Clint Eastwood did in Letters From Iwo Jima -- to humanize a feared enemy.

Doss nestles a picture of his wife in a Bible she gives him before his induction into the army. It may be something Doss really did, but it's also a cornball, religious/romantic touch that says something about the movie's heart -- at least when it's not asking us to watch GI's being ripped to shreds.

There's talk that Gibson will receive an Oscar nomination as best-director for Hacksaw Ridge. If he does, it's the harrowing face he puts on war that will have earned him the nod.

I'm not sure, though, that we can tell whether Gibson's isn't as interested in the graphic carnage he portrays as he is in Doss's renunciation of all killing.

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