Thursday, March 02, 2017

Hacksaw Ridge (Mel Gibson)

Gorier than thou

Mel Gibson's latest Hacksaw Ridge tells the tale of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), who wanted to join the army and serve his country without firing a rifle. 

How's that again? 

It's based on a true story so somehow Doss did manage to join and somehow the army did let him serve in his own fashion. How Doss and army manage to arrive at a workable arrangement despite all contraindications though you don't quite get; not the whole process, not in this movie

Doss worked as a joiner at a Newport News, VA shipyard; he was offered deferment for working in a crucial industry, but felt he had to enlist and serve his country. He was a Seventh Day Adventist however and refused to kill, citing his religion's prohibitions against taking a life; he also refused to work on Saturdays

Doss wasn't a pacifist though, and objected to being categorized a conscientious objector. He preferred to be called a 'conscientious cooperator' he told the draft board; he believed in the United States' right to use force against its enemies--he just wasn't willing to take an enemy life himself, a point (and problem) the movie tends to glide over.

The movie also doesn't bother to explain that Doss was hardly alone in his dilemma. There were Adventists in the Civil War and in the First World War; from the time Japan bombed Pearl Harbor to the time the United States atom-bombed Nagasaki some twelve thousand Adventists participated in the Second World War, mostly as noncombatants in medical branches (as for weapons yes medics were trained to use them but no they did not carry and wear the armband at the same time)Doss didn't pop up out of nowhere, nor was he the first nonfighting Adventist the military had to deal with and ultimately assimilate; he was unique only because he had been decorated for his participation.

Doss seemed to constantly stick in the military's craw, despite the latter institution's previous experience with the man's faith. Gibson on the other hand seems far less inhibited than the military, morally or aesthetically; any inconvenient facts he simply rewrites or lops off, pinning a metaphorical crown of thorns on Doss' head and whipping the man forward to his personal Calvary. 

Doss' father William Thomas for one didn't suffer from PTSD when threatening his wife; he was quarreling drunkenly with his brother and pulled out a gun (his wife rather than playing helpless victim called the police and told Desmond to hide the weapon). Doss' fellow soldiers never beat him up; they ostracized him ridiculed him insulted him for refusing to hold a rifle but didn't bloody him.

In fact the more I learn about Doss' military career the less I see Passion of the Christ than Catch 22 ('conscientious cooperator') or M*A*S*H (medic elbow-deep in gore)--less parable on sacrificial heroism and more satire about the kind of man who goes to heroic lengths to enable other men to do the killing, and the kind of organization that allows such foolishness to take place in the general slaughter.

The approach would be more honest, the paradox laid out in the open for us to examine (or ignore if we so choose); it would be truer to the absurdity of military patriotism and unviolent faith intermingling, a forced copulation between oil and water that you can't ignore for more than a minute or the two will separate. It would at least have been a more fertile inventive concept than the kitsch melodrama and eventual bloodbath Gibson actually gives us.

Once the men land on Okinawa the picture turns deadly serious, as in fifty thousand American casualties (double that number for the Japanese). Bodies fly through the air in glorious slow motion; rats scrabble through human guts, nibbling on the choicest bits. At one point a soldier raises the torn body of a dead fellow American with one hand to act as a human shield, the other hand firing his rifle at full automatic--a cool 'superhuman killer' trope more appropriate to Die Hard than toa war picture aspiring for respectability. The sky fills with flame, smoke, screams; we've seen this before and worse in John Woo's Bullet in the Head or Windtalker, the difference being Woo presents his films as fiction not fact, a stylized take on a historical subject not an authentic record of the event itself. Woo never really bothers to pretend he's making historically accurate epics (though they're recognizably--even triumphantly--of the period, and often have an epic feel); Gibson from Passion of the Christ through Apocalypto to this movie keeps claiming to have tapped into one truth or another, the assumption being we'd finally listen to him once he and his pictures have been properly sanctified. 

Sanctified or not I'd say Woo's the better filmmaker--his editing rhythms are smoother, his action choreography more inventive. Even his slow motion is more graceful, with an emphasis on balletic motion over arterial spray or intestinal flop.  

(O and for the record--skip this paragraph if you plan to see the movie!--the real Desmond Doss recalls kicking his leg at the one grenade, not necessarily being able to knock it away; it had been tossed by Japanese troops accidentally encountered past the escarpment and not, as Gibson has it, by soldiers treacherously pretending to surrender (Trust Gibson to add an extraneous detail emphasizing the evil of foreign devils).)

A grim joke, Gibson's simpleminded war drama being nominated for Best Picture, Gibson himself Best Director.* It's as if Gibson had taken a page from the Japanese defense of Okinawa: when flames roar overhead, take to the tunnels and keep head low; once all is quiet, come out with both barrels blasting. Only thing needed to complete the scenario is a resurrected Robert Altman recording all with a hi-def videocam--sequel to The Player, anyone?

*(Not that I think the picture's in any danger of being recognized for its art, art and the Academy Awards having little or nothing in common; far as I'm concerned this director and the Oscars richly deserve each other, one shoved far up the other. The Oscars do indicate industrywide approval however and--barring Gibson getting arrested for drunk driving again--he's apparently been welcomed back with forgiving (forgetful?) arms) 

First published in Businessworld 2.23.17

CORRECTION: Seventh Day Adventists refuse to work on Saturdays and not Sundays as originally written (that's my Catholic upbringing speaking, I figure). Thanks to Clayton Arnail for pointing out the error.

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