Mel Gibson’s controversial inclusion for Best Director signals that his work is still worth appreciating.
In these final days leading up to the 89th Academy Awards ceremony it’s surprising how little has been written about Mel Gibson’s big comeback vehicle Hacksaw Ridge. With La La Land dominating so much of the conversation (both positive and negative) and with films like Moonlight, Hidden Figures, and Fences overcoming the #OscarSoWhite controversy from last year, Hacksaw has become a bit of an afterthought. A lot of that probably stems from people’s general discomfort with the notoriously troubled Gibson being back in Hollywood’s good graces. However, Casey Affleck has taken most of the annual Oscar controversy heat due to the resurfacing of sexual assault allegations. And then there was Nate Parker, whose film Birth of a Nation was thought to be the frontrunner to win Best Picture until his own past became a public relations nightmare. As a result, Birth of a Nation didn’t receive a single nomination. But Gibson has been given a quiet reprieve, probably due to time, but more than likely due to his prowess as a filmmaker.
There has been a fair amount of snark thrown Hacksaw’s way around these parts and in many other quarters of the internet. But let us not forget that Hacksaw Ridge debuted to a nine minute standing ovation at the Venice Film Festival and generally strong notices. It’s easy to dismiss something when you find the creator behind it so unsavory. There are many filmmakers whose personal lives have tainted their body of work, but who can deny that Annie Hall and Chinatown remain two of the greatest films ever made? For that matter the original D.W. Griffith Birth of a Nation, Gone with the Wind, and Triumph of the Will are continuously taught in film schools across the world for their historical importance, despite being acknowledged for their horribly dated racist ideologies. The debate over separating the art from the artist will likely go on as long as art exists.
For Gibson’s part, he has apologized for many of his past transgressions, but is that ever truly enough? How long can someone be shunned before they are eventually forgiven? And what crime is ever too great to forgive? That is a continual struggle for reviewers whose job is to objectively critique the art and not the artist. That job gets harder to do when the lines between art and artist begin to blur. Gibson’s work itself has not been without controversy. Braveheart was accused of homophobia for its less than flattering depiction of Edward II, which Gibson later defended by citing other gay historical figures who were more heroic. Passion of the Christ was famously criticized for perceived anti-semitism, though there were defenders of the film within the Jewish community. And Apocalypto faced condemnation for its violent depiction of a Mayan civilization in decline without acknowledging that culture’s many spiritual and artistic innovations.
Perhaps Gibson’s largest criticism has been his use of explicit violence which has been a central theme in all of his works as a director. His 1993 debut The Man Without a Face dealt with the aftermath of car accident that left a man horribly scarred and a child dead. In that film we see the lingering effects of spontaneous violence and how the world views those who are afflicted. His Oscar-winning Braveheart is a much more overt exploration of violence as its central character uses brutality to avenge his murdered wife and lead his country in rebellion. The violence is used as a means to an end in order to obtain “freedom” from tyranny. In Apocalypto the viewer witnesses a society caving in on itself as it wallows in slavery, abuse, and blood sacrifices. In this film violence is depicted as not only an evil, but a necessary one for self-preservation and ultimate survival.
Without a doubt, Gibson’s most violent film is The Passion of the Christ, in which Jesus’s crucifixion is presented in alarmingly graphic detail. Gibson’s intent to depict the enormity of Jesus’s sacrifice caused complete hysteria when it was released. Devout believers openly sobbed in movie theaters across the world while many others condemned the film to as pure torture porn. No matter your religious affiliation it’s impossible to watch The Passion of the Christ and not have a visceral reaction to its violence, which makes up at least half of the film’s running time. But Passion provides an interesting counterpoint to Gibson’s latest offering. Hacksaw is also a violent opus, but while Passion’s use of violence is there to demonstrate the sin of man, Hacksaw provides the argument that sin can both be necessary and avoided.
It is often asserted that World War II was the last modern war that had to be fought in order to derail the efforts of fascism and imperialism from taking over the world. Millions died at the hands of the Nazis and their Japanese allies, and if the war had not been fought millions more could have perished. Hacksaw Ridge displays this fascinating dichotomy by unflinchingly showing the horror and brutality of war while juxtaposing those scenes with religious pacifism and good old-fashioned Americana. The film follows the true story of private Desmond Doss, a Seventh-Day Adventist conscientious objector who wanted to serve his country but refused to carry a rifle. Desmond instead planned to be a field medic so that he could “save life instead of take it.” He ended up saving over 75 soldiers during the battle of Okinawa and was awarded the Medal of Honor.
The premise for Hacksaw Ridge is the kind of feel-good true story that could have easily been the subject of any 1950’s Hollywood war film. In fact, when watching the film’s first half if it weren’t for the recognizable modern actors you would swear you were watching a film from that era. It’s entirely wholesome, slightly cornball, and generally inoffensive. Once the bullets start flying and the body parts rip across the screen, however, Hacksaw Ridge becomes something else entirely. Gibson’s penchant for violence is up close and personal, but it feels different this time around. The sensational savage revelry of his cinematic past is missing and in its place is something more pure. Watching Gibson dance between the film’s two extremes and somehow find a cohesive whole is a testament to his skill. It helps that he can direct action better than almost anyone in the business. Need proof? Look no further than the epic, no CGI, immaculately choreographed medieval battles in Braveheart, the likes of which have still not been topped in any film since. His battle stagings in Hacksaw are more intentionally chaotic, but no less impressive for their coherence and sense of terror.
Besides his exploration of violence, faith has always been at the forefront of every Gibson production. With Hacksaw he is able to bring his religious values to the table without bludgeoning his audience. That isn’t to say that Gibson is at all a subtle filmmaker when it comes to his themes. He paints with a broad brush and, though he could use more poetry, his matter of factness is universal. Desmond Doss is a good man who believes in right and wrong. Through him Gibson is able to appeal to mankind’s better nature and craft a compelling anti-war sentiment all the while understanding its ultimate necessity. It helps that Gibson has the talented and adorable Andrew Garfield (who gives a sweet, genuine performance that never condescends) leading the portrayal of his cinematic mea culpa.
So, does Gibson deserve his newfound Hollywood forgiveness? That’s in the eye of the beholder. There is no questioning that he is a genuine talent with the gift of cinema storytelling pumping through his veins. He’s a classicist at heart when it comes to his style and techniques, but it’s his sheer audacity that launches him ahead. Who else would film Passion in Aramaic or create a blood-soaked chase film entirely in the Mayan language? Hacksaw Ridge might be more conventional when placed next to his other works, but it’s no less technically accomplished. It’s a film that appeals directly to the heart. Some have accused it of pandering, but that seems remarkably cynical for a film that is anything but.
It will be interesting to see where Gibson’s career as a director will go from here. His Oscar comeback has Hollywood knocking on his door for more commercial fare. He has reportedly been offered the sequel to Suicide Squad, but that would be a waste of his talents (and almost certainly, everyone’s time). Gibson has always picked projects he was passionate about and a franchise rescue doesn’t seem likely. There have been rumblings about a sequel to The Passion, which makes commercial and creative sense for the troubled artist. There will always be plenty of people who will refuse to see his work simply out of principle. That’s their right and it’s hard to argue with their reason, but while they can ridicule the man they can’t ridicule the art. It’s too singular to be dismissed out of hand.