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Hacksaw Ridge: The Critic is K.I.A.
By Alex Carrigan
*Editor's Note: This article is part of a review series by Alex Carrigan from February 14-24. To learn about the series, visit this post.
A few weeks ago, I went to the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference in Washington D.C. It was three days of literary panels, author signings, and meetings with publishers and presses. One of the panels I went to was called "The Art of War: The Power and Role of the Writer in Times of Crisis, " featuring writers David Shields, Lidia Yuknavitch, and Viet Thanh Nguyen. Nguyen (who I later met and who shared my love for films like Grave of the Fireflies and Barefoot Gen) said he preferred his war movies to make war "boring." He decried films like Zero Dark Thirty and American Sniper (which even I have gone at length about being one of my least favorite movies in the last several years) for glamorizing war and failing to really underscore the atrocities and terror of war in favor of extreme action and patriotic fervor. His opinions were in line with mine, so naturally, I had concerns going into today's film.
What I didn't expect was for this film to be one of the best unintentional comedies of 2016. That sounds horrible, but let me explain.
Hacksaw Ridge is based on the true story of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), a conscientious objector in World War II who served as a combat medic but refused to carry or use a weapon. Despite the hell he faced in training that nearly resulted in a court martial, he saved 75 men during the Battle of Okinawa and received the Medal of Honor for his actions. The film follows him through these challenges, and shows how his dedication to his Seventh Day Adventist beliefs and code of nonviolence were not excuses for cowardice and how he could still play a part in the war effort.
I did not like this movie. Morally, I have a lot of issues with it, although not to the extent of something like American Sniper. I can respect a man like Doss for keeping to his beliefs and actually being heroic in war instead of a killer. The problem with it is that if you read the above paragraph, you could be inspired to be like Doss. I highly doubt people are allowed to enlist in the U.S. military these days and follow the same path as Doss, so most likely, all that will happen is that it will make people want to enlist and go to war. Even if Doss is the black sheep of his battalion, we still have plenty of reasonably attractive white men shooting Japanese soldiers to make war look hella cool.
Artistically, the film is no better. Director Mel Gibson shot the film like every war movie to have come out since 2000, or maybe even earlier given all the Saving Private Ryan nods. The scenes back home are shot in warm colors, while the battles are a mix of gray and brown. The war scenes are fairly decent, but numerous times can you tell the actors are standing before obvious blue screens or that the battleships and fire are CGI. Coupled with the sheer amount of gore, it becomes very muddied and unpleasant, and since the film is neatly divided between the at-home part and the at-war part, the shift becomes noticeable.
Despite all of this (which would take a lot from me), I had a great time watching this movie. I don’t like it, and I’d be hard pressed to recommend it, but the whole movie is so campy and so goofy that I nearly laughed my ass off the whole time. The artistic choices mentioned previously were so dumb, and some of the choices made in certain scenes were so over-the-top, I couldn’t help it. Twice the film slows down while characters talking, and both times the synching from the audio to the mouths gets off, ruining what is supposed to be a serious moment.
Even the battle scenes, what are supposed to be the selling point of these films, were filled with such unintentionally hilarious moments I had to stop the movie to recover. One of the main characters finds a legless corpse, picks him up, and uses him as a shield as he runs across the battlefield firing at enemy soldiers. It’s supposed to illustrate the severity of combat and how poorly the bodies of the victims were treated, but it looks so absurd on film. There’s also several moments where the film will have close-ups on characters screaming in combat, with their wrinkled and pained faces providing some hysterical mugging.
One notable example was when the battle at Hacksaw Ridge began. A soldier stumbles onto what he thinks is a corpse, but the corpse is actually a wounded soldier. The wounded soldier pops up like that Don’t Wake Daddy game and screams in the other soldier’s face, causing him to scream back. The wounded soldier then gets shot in the back of the head, his brains and skull matter flying into the other soldier’s face. That soldier then gets shot in the head and in the body repeatedly as the characters scramble into battle. This whole 5-10 seconds of film is so over-the-top and comical I soon realized exactly what was going to happen. Sure enough, in this serious war drama, I found several moments so strange and bizarre, the only reaction I could have was to laugh.
Hacksaw Ridge is unlikely to win anything. I can’t see it winning Best Picture, Best Director, or Best Actor, not just because of the strong categories, but because I don’t see any of them being considered the best. Gibson’s issues are clear, but Garfield is not at the same level as the other nominees. He has that dopey Blue Ridge Mountain charm that Doss was meant to have, but even that made it hard to take certain moments seriously. It could win some technical awards, but that’s probably all it will get.
Overall, Hacksaw Ridge has many issues with its direction, effects, and with the underlying issues that plague Hollywood war films from this decade. But even though I don’t like this movie, I could put it on the level of a guilty pleasure film, like Showgirls or The Room. Granted, given the choice, I’d much rather watch Showgirls or The Room, but Hacksaw Ridge makes such an earnest attempt to be an award-worthy war drama that the way it fails on so many levels amuses me. If anything, this puts it higher than something like Manchester by the Sea because it left me with a reaction compared to that film. I just don’t see this film doing well at this year’s ceremony, and I don’t see it doing well compared to other war films.
Tomorrow: I see a film so good, it was talked about at the writer’s convention. I take a look at Moonlight, and see why it was mentioned in a panel about writing queer characters.