Film: Hacksaw Ridge (2016)
Stars: Andrew Garfield, Vince Vaughn, Sam Worthington, Luke Bracey, Hugo Weaving
Director: Mel Gibson
Oscar History: 6 nominations/2 wins (Best Picture, Director, Actor-Andrew Garfield, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing*, Film Editing*)
Snap Judgment Ranking: 2/5 stars
(Spoilers Ahead...though it's real life so, you know, read a book) The film is the story of Desmond Doss (Garfield), the first man in American history to receive the Medal of Honor and be a conscientious objector, winning it for actions he took during the Battle of Okinawa. Doss's story is one for the ages, and it seems kind of unthinkable that no one had made this into a movie before. The film follows him from his early days in Virginia to eventually fighting in Japan, but as he was a Seventh-Day Adventist with deeply-held beliefs, he refuses to kill a man in war or to even hold a weapon. As a result, he is ostracized by his fellow soldiers until his grit and devotion wear them down and he proves himself in battle, saving the lives of some 75 men who had been left for dead atop Hacksaw Ridge.
It's a riveting story, the kind tailor-made for the screen (one of those, it wouldn't be believable except it's true situations), and indeed as far back as Audie Murphy they've been trying to make this into a film, but somehow it was Gibson who eventually brought it forth. The actual by-product of the movie never quite lives up to its promise, particularly since Gibson struggles in early scenes in establishing his characters, particularly Andrew Garfield, who plays Doss as, well, "simple" in early scenes that are excruciatingly bad. This continues as Gibson, likely without his A-list recruiting talents, is stuck with relatively banal actors like Sam Worthington and the terrible Vince Vaughan (seriously-when he is not filled with bombast?). All-in-all, though, Gibson is saved by that movie star mentality.
What makes conservative filmmakers like Gibson and Clint Eastwood such fine filmmakers even when they're gearing toward politics that don't always jive with the audience or what we expect out of Hollywood, is that they frame their films in ways that are structured for classic movie stars. Being movie stars themselves, they end up frequently making movies that center so well around a central performance that it's hard not to cheer for the protagonist, which isn't as easy as it sounds. We all are meant to like the good guy, but actually cheering for them takes some emotional investment, and Gibson and Eastwood both do that rather well. Their films occasionally lack the nuance that would make them exceptional (Gibson, for example, seems to revel in the violence a little too much behind the lens to properly give Doss's religious and pacifist views a chance), but they know how to structure their movies well so that a central performance can come through. In the end, you find yourself rooting for Doss even if you thought him ludicrous at the beginning of the picture. Gibson smartly gives side characters enough due that you recognize them as they are saved by Doss later in the film (and even winks at the way his posterior was exploited continuously in the 80's/90's by having Luke Pegler nude for much of the film), but never really pulls away from his central hero. If Garfield gets an Oscar nomination (which I suspect he will, even if he doesn't really deserve it), he'll have Gibson's direction, so focused on making his arch work, to thank for him as Garfield's actorly instincts have always relied more heavily on that of a character performance than a leading man. Mel Gibson may never make a truly great movie (unlike Clint, who has), but it's hard to deny that there are effective, action movie moments in this film that work splendidly, even if it's dreadful in other patches of the film enough so that I can't properly recommend this picture.
Those are my thoughts-how about yours? I know that I'm still leery that Gibson is back (especially in the same year as Trump), but since he is-what do you think of this as a comeback vehicle? Do you think he should get another property again, or was this too indulgent? And what other movie stars made fine directors for, well, movie stars? Share in the comments!