Mel Gibson is the greatest strength and detriment to any film he directs, including his latest, “Hacksaw Ridge.” Whatever problems one may have with him — on or off the film set — there is no denying that he is a formidable director of action and violence. But when there is none to indulge in and he’s forced into exposition and contextualization of that action, his films are sluggish, clichéd and eye-rollingly heavy-handed.
But boy, is that action incredible, especially in “Hacksaw Ridge.” This is one of a handful of films released this year that I would urge viewers to see in theaters.
Its war scenes are a sensory overload — especially in their sound design, an overwhelming, chaotic flurry of explosions, gunfire and anguished human voices that bring the hell of war to visceral, horrifying life. While Gibson seems to enjoy the violence a bit too much, it is thrilling. But it takes about half of the movie’s 131-minute run time to actually get there. And before and after that action, the film is a slog of maudlin set-up and indulges in Gibson’s most egregious flaw: his lionization of boringly un-flawed, often deeply religious men and the exaltation of their heroic deeds and fortitude.
The film follows World War II soldier Desmond Doss, played with nice-boy charm and innocence by Andrew Garfield. A Seventh-day Adventist, Doss enlists in the U.S. army and becomes a conscientious objector. He wishes to serve his country but refuses to carry a weapon. He becomes a combat medic and single-handedly saves 75 men in the battle of Okinawa.
The film’s subject puts “Hacksaw Ridge” in the same company as recent films like “Sully” and “The Birth of a Nation,” hagiographic biopics made by problematic directors, designed to instill a sense of virtue in its audience. The approach of “Hacksaw Ridge” doesn’t result in a film as problematic, troubling or contradictory as “Sully” and “ The Birth of a Nation” — unless you’re deeply offended by overt pro-Christian messages — but it does makes the proceedings duller than they need to be.
While these stories are worthy of some level of valorization, making these men utterly perfect and thus utterly unrecognizable as human beings destroys any chance to create truly compelling figures. An audience needs to recognize themselves in these figures. Without that, the characters become just another infallible saint that mere mortals can’t hope to imitate — or really care about.