(2016, Mel Gibson)
[2.5 out of 5 stars]
[Image credit: Mark Rogers via Lionsgate Publicity]
In high school English class, I was introduced to the work of British war poet Wilfred Owen. He wrote about the futility of war and questions the honour and glory we place upon it. His sensitivity and skill as a poet produced some of the most terrifying and explicit images of war. Dulce et Decorum est imprinted a depiction and idea of war inside my young brain: that there is nothing honourable, or even beautiful about going to war.
In this poem Owen describes a soldier suffocating in poisonous gas: "And watch the white eyes writhing in his face / His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin" and "Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs, / Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud" finally concluding with a reference to the title: "My friend, you would not tell with such high zest / To children ardent for some desperate glory, / The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est / Pro patria mori. Those last lines are in Latin and translates to a familiar WWI phrase taken from the Roman poet Horace: "It is sweet to die for one's country."
As you can imagine this resulted in my uneasy relationship with war movies. I absolutely loathed anything that depicted war as an honourable, glorified human creation. I remember watching AMERICAN SNIPER a few years back and couldn't shake off the sick feeling in my stomach. Its desensitisation to war violence and xenophobia was profoundly disturbing to me. I felt even sicker when I read the disturbing reactions to it.
At first I thought AMERICAN SNIPER just lacked a clear point of view but after thinking about it, the film was pretty clear about its intentions. And judging from the vehement hatefulness disguised as patriotism spouted by its defenders, it was successful in that regard. HACKSAW RIDGE on the other hand is harder to pin down because it both glorifies and critiques war in equal measure. It's not that it's subtle or ambiguous - far from it - but it doesn't have a clear sense of what it wants to say, despite the very clear stance its central character, Desmond Doss takes.
Being the first conscientious objector to win the Medal of Honour, this is a fascinating true story. This could have been a deeply introspective film. It is, after all, the story of a soldier risking his own life and perhaps the lives of the men around him for the sake of his beliefs. There is plenty of moral, philosophical and religious fodder. The introspectiveness, however, gets lost. Fortunately, Andrew Garfield, an actor who always appears as if he's mulling over something in his mind, embodies this real-life hero with such earnestness and depth that you cannot help but get taken with the convictions of this man. It is a moment of pride when he is finally permitted to go to war as a medic, to heal and not hurt, and to do so without weapons. His actions contradict the very nature of war even as he participates in it.
Unfortunately, the grandness of the filmmaking overwhelms the interiority of Desmond Doss by, ironically, placing too much reverence upon him. The score swells in the final act. There are unnecessary uses of slow-motion (he kicks a grenade away like it was a slow-mo replay from a soccer match) and the ever familiar (in Hollywood films anyway) 'we were so wrong about this guy' narrative turn with close-up point-of-view shots of soldier's faces in disbelief and admiration. His heroism is so conspicuous that all you needed were the words HERO! to flash intermittently on the screen. That is not to undermine the sheer heroism and bravery shown by Desmond Doss but I feel that his unyielding devotion to his moral beliefs - which in my view is his bravest action - was overshadowed by the obtrusiveness of the filmmaking and the grandiose final act. This is a quiet hero dropped into the loudness of a Hollywood war film.
Unlike, Owen's war poetry, Mel Gibson's gruesome depictions of violence doesn't off-put, it glorifies. This may not seem apparent considering who this movie is about - a heroic pacifist who refuses to carry a weapon - but by the last hour or so, it revels in the violence that it worked so hard to condemn in the first two acts. There's a scene where Vince Vaughn's character is pulled along in a makeshift sled and guns down Japanese soldiers with a machine gun with so much glee that it looked like it came out of a mindless action movie. For such a fascinating subject matter, I was saddened to witness it regress in this way in its final moments.