Mel Gibson should have been the king of Hollywood, but he did two things that ruined him.
First, he made “The Passion of the Christ,” the most successful R-rated and independent movie in America. It revealed the deep chasm dividing Americans after 9/11. For all the political hysteria that surrounded its release, the deafening silence of America’s movie artists meant more. They were not going to try to reach the audience Gibson had brought to their attention: neither to include it in America’s public culture nor even to acquire some of its considerable money.
Secondly, Gibson made several awful comments when stopped for drunk driving. This put an end to the most startling director in America ten years ago. Despite all this, Gibson’s 2016 film “Hacksaw Ridge” has resurfaced the greatness inside his soul. It’s been nominated for six Oscars, and Gibson’s first nomination for Best Director in 20 years.
The Oscars at their best are about one simple thing: Beautifying what is worth beautifying in American movies. This year, that’s Mel Gibson’s “Hacksaw Ridge.” Would America’s award institutions actually reward a patriotic movie that shows Christianity in American society as a source of hope and unity, rather than fear and division? The Academy should, because it is our first serious movie confrontation with what World War II meant for America. It is also popular, and already at 97 in the IMDb list of top 250 movies. Users there have given it an 8.5 rating. It is also number 14 on the search popularity list. All this helped drive the film to three Golden Globe nominations, which failed to secure a win. Will the Oscars follow suit, or come through?
Whether this movie will be rewarded with the honors and the stamp of approval of America’s institutions of prestige, the awards really will depend on the place of an informed patriotism in the self-understanding of these institutions and their voters.
An Exploration of the American Heart
“Hacksaw Ridge” is the true story of Desmond Doss, a Seventh-Day Adventist whose deeds in service to his country were so shocking and so free of the sordid that is the element of war that they seem to us a miracle. We owe Andrew Garfield some gratitude for portraying with utmost clarity a change in the conception of heroism in America: a sense of personal honor proved by martial prowess is replaced gradually by a sacrificial concern for the good of one’s fellow soldiers, fellow Americans. The accent moves from taking lives to saving lives.
The movie is long, but does not feel long. It is ugly, but does not seem so. It is full of suffering, but holds out the hope that suffering may be redeemed. It portrays the America that went to war after Pearl Harbor without much glamour, but with a lot of affection, for the tragedies as much as for the romances. The first half of the movie is not merely a fine period piece, it is an insistent investigation of the way of life that made it possible for a remarkable man, a typically American hero, to appear.
I will give one example of the American mind reflected in this story. The military authorities quite reasonably ask Doss, a volunteer, why he should be allowed to serve in the military if he is not willing to take up arms in defense of his fellow soldiers. Doss answers that he knows boys who committed suicide in shame for having been considered useless to defending America after Pearl Harbor (4F status). He implies that a country that exercises such influence over the minds of men owes it to them to allow them to serve.
This is a deep truth about American heroism obvious to anyone who reads WWII citations for the Medal of Honor. Gibson lays bare the conflict between Christianity and manly honor that accounts for Southern men’s particular contribution to the American military. America’s self-understanding was at risk in WWII, not merely its security. It was partly heroes like Doss who rescued humanity from the age of horrors that was the first half of the twentieth century.
Teaching Americans About Their Heritage
It is wise and generous to try to teach Americans about World War II. Gibson has made a good contribution to that effort, if Americans avail themselves of his offering. The institutions that bestow prestige have a part to play in recommending and beautifying this movie to attract an audience and legacy. The press has its own part to play in fostering public conversation. Ultimately, the people decide for themselves, but conservatives should do their best to make the case for the importance of stories like “Hacksaw Ridge.”
The second half of the movie is the hell of war. We see the reward of Doss’s unyielding insistence that he serve America. In a world renowned for hype and overselling, where everything is advertised as awesome to even have a chance of being noticed, Gibson awes the audience with a true story that nevertheless understates the facts.
Americans are shown WWII movies constantly, but rarely allowed to see why so many people killed and died. The stories are always told from a narrow perspective, to avoid noticing that America was involved in it as a country, not merely on an individual basis.
Consider America’s premier movie-maker about manliness: Clint Eastwood tried and failed to teach Americans about the largest war in their history and the crisis that led to America’s rise as the most powerful country in the world. His movies “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Letters from Iwo Jima” end up cowed by the awful grandeur of the war. War is described as an accident and people as a kind of pawn in a game far beyond their understanding.
When Realism Blinds You to Reality
The violent realism of our modern war movies blinds us to the need to understand what previous generations did and why. This robs us of insight and therefore any possibility of understanding the people we call the Greatest Generation. Understanding is replaced by good branding. We feel good saying “the greatest generation,” so we keep doing it.
One man alone is responsible for this catastrophic fake realism. For empty talk about the hell of war and an accurate, belabored, fascinating show of violence and slaughter, see Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan.” In that movie, a realistic depiction of the hell of war distracts from the question of why Americans were storming the beaches of Normandy in the first place. It is a breathtaking show of taking what matters most out of war.
Remember Lincoln’s phrase, “that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion?” There is none of that there. Instead, one gets a fairy tale that’s a kind of watered-down Christianity, a search for a lost lamb. Everything about that plot is fake, and the movie-maker’s skill is put in the service of selling that fake, one clever, fascinating detail after another.
At the end, the audience knows nothing more about WWII than they did at the beginning. Indeed, they know less, because they have been brutalized and sentimentalized while being robbed of insight. Possibly, the audience is persuaded there is no there there—that the war was a mistake, or pointless, or an accident.
In “Hacksaw Ridge,” instead of a director’s tricks, we get a true story to liberate us from the fake history. Now, all that remains is to see whether we can make this movie our own, and attract the public’s attention in this age of distractions.