Combat medic Desmond Doss pulled 75 wounded men to safety in the Battle of Okinawa – without carrying a weapon. Let that sink in, because dear crap that’s amazing.
Doss’ bravery and commitment to non-violence* (*in service of violence) is a heck of a story, in a way of a sort that hasn’t been picked over endlessly in American cinema. American public life lacks a developed vocabulary to question the necessity, nuances of effects of its own state-sponsored violence. This is, of course, is partially why the one mainstream film concerning a conscientious objector is a freaking *war* film. It’s also how two years ago American Sniper launched a thousand think-pieces about whether it glorified its subject – an efficient killing machine who parlayed a lack of public introspection into a career on the conservative media circuit. Sniper was preceded by Lone Survivor (2013) and followed by 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi (2016, directed by explosion-meister Michael Bay) – all December/Jan releases ‘based on true stories’ prominently used by Conservatives as political bludgeons. These films [at least the former two; I didn’t see Benghazi] may allow nuanced critical readings. But if we’re being honest, their prime audiences are flag-waving conservatives, and they are constructed so that audience can feel like a variety of nebulous political concerns are validated.
That is to say Americans are scarcely asked to go to the movie and contemplate themselves as anything less than the ‘good guys’; we’re very adept at finding stories that allow ‘real’ soldiers to be simultaneously celebrated as spree killers and victimized underdogs; and any subtle critique of war’s practice or premises (conceptual or specific) must be bathed in deferential gushing about the sanctity of the American soldier. Say what you want politically, but the dramatic possibilities are notably constraining. An important caveat: the not-near-talked-about-enough Fury (2015), which portrayed soldiers late in World War II as calloused from years of fighting – or at least, for its first 2/3. Then the genre demands (and likely, studio notes) took over and it became a pretty good action movie, largely unrelated to what preceded it. Also, maybe, the technically-experimental Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2016), which Google tells me is finally playing once daily at my local multiplex.
So I came to Hacksaw Ridge not expecting a great film, but with a curiosity about where the limits of American cinema intersected with Mel Gibson’s torture complex, aptly manifest in his other directorial efforts (Braveheart, The Passion of the Christ, and Apocalypto). In Gibson films, righteous men suffer. I assumed Hacksaw would partially re-inscribe non-violence in the service of violence (that is the premise), but I was more intrigued by how little ethical conflict is of concern in Hacksaw Ridge. For being a movie concerning a *conscientious objector* in *wartime*, it’s remarkable how every American’s value systems get along within the movie. True to American and Gibsonian obsessions, war just is in Hacksaw, immutable. Even conscientious objectors find it beyond critique. This doesn’t exactly un-write the language of dissent, but it does significantly configure it in support of conventional goals.
True to this recent genre, Hacksaw Ridge opens with a title card declaring it “a true story” (not based on, but simply “a true story”). To clarify: Hacksaw Ridge is neither a documentary nor peer-reviewed. It’s an artistic interpretation and often a narratively pat one at that. It’s generally accepted that these kinds of movies sand off the real-life rough edges of their subjects while leaving their authoritative air of ‘reality’ intact, but it’s remarkably blatant in Hacksaw, which continues another trend in some of the above-described movies of sticking archive footage of the real-life subjects in the closing credits. ‘You can’t argue with conviction’ one says of Doss’ drive which – I’ll be discussing – is really the frustrating crux of the film’s moral universe: nobody questions much except Doss’ bravery (about which, of course, they are mistaken).
The first act of the film is a grab-bag of genres as Hacksaw runs through bits of domestic drama, courtroom procedural, and a romance seemingly driven by the leads never having otherwise experienced sexual attraction. Functionally, of course, it exists to give the audience a reason to root for Doss before going off to battle, but it doesn’t develop either character much beyond being an unassailably upstanding golly-gee yokel and Rachel Griffiths as the ‘girlfriend’. Andrew Garfield’s Oscar nomination for Best Actor is confounding; there’s little to the character beyond being super-duper and not too bright. On another level, the overall package is an actor-y ode to American pieties of the sort well-represented at the Academy Awards.
The dynamics among the movie’s men are just as perfunctory, but they have some pleasantly complicated layering to them. The drill sergeant (Vince Vaughn) and other commanding officers shift effectively between being hard-asses, and explaining such apparent cruelty’s purpose in creating group cohesion. Vaughn, in particular, gives a damn good performance. The military itself seems realistic enough as an elemental combination of training camp, functional bureaucracy, and boy’s club. Doss’ drunken father (Hugo Weaving) is a theatrical condensation of war’s psychological cost: scarred by his experience in The Great War and coping by beating his wife and children, talking to tombstones, demanding to be killed, and telling literal gut-busting tales at dinner.
As for the reasons why one might not want to serve: Doss’ father doesn’t want his sons to enlist based off his own experiences. Vaughn’s drill sergeant seems un-ironic enough when he tells the other trainees that they’re fighting for others’ rights – including, to refuse to fight. Doss mentions two boys from his hometown were declared unfit to serve and killed themselves because they couldn’t live with it – not exactly a ringing description or endorsement of principled non-involvement from the movie there. Yet these potential dramatic hooks are mentioned in passing compared to the time expended on the question of whether or not Doss will physically touch a weapon.
How not carrying a gun is qualitatively different from supporting others who do is beyond the film’s nuance. Provided he doesn’t physically have to touch a gun, Desmond Doss is as morally serene as the Buddha himself. As such, his conscientious objection is constructed so as to not actually be in conflict with war. He doesn’t reflect on his conviction; the movie never challenges it. And so, his ill-articulated objections to organized violence are mostly configured as another venue for wartime machismo. He’s pretty much a guy with a few idiosyncratic ideas about combat ethics who found his moment to shine.
Also unexamined: what value the military’s vaunted group cohesion is in combat exercises where they’ll likely die horribly for ambiguous gains. If the commanding officer says to climb a cliff face and muck about in fog and gunfire for… [reasons unarticulated], well, ours is not to wonder why, as the poem goes. Or how Doss’ blessed conviction is different from that of the Japanese soldiers or Nazis (the latter of whom go un-mentioned). It goes without saying that the Japanese combatants are largely unexamined, portrayed as duplicitous, threatening, and – at their most human – afraid.
This is in contrast to that other 2016 movie where Andrew Garfield plays a devout Christian attempting a Japanese intervention. The ethical crises of Silence haunt me; its characters enter the mission field with good intentions and wind up being involved with extensive, unintended suffering. Silence is a movie where there are no easy ways to do ‘right’, and one’s capacity to act effectively narrows; Hacksaw is one where the ‘right’ paths are never in doubt or beyond achievement.
I don’t know if it’s better or worse that there are, genuinely, about 20 minutes at the start of the big battle scene that’s as horrifying as anything I’ve ever seen on film. Bullets flying, heads exploding, men dying, corpses rotting – it’s a vision of hell. Gibson’s progressed since Braveheart, in which the action scenes are mostly close-ups of impalements. And it does come off as a really arbitrary, stupid way to settle a conflict, as my friend Dave said, selling me on watching the movie (time well-spent for its moments of excellence). But for the movie as a whole, that horror becomes suspenseful, and the tension shifts to the audience wondering how clever Dossy going to survive the moment. By the end, Hacksaw Ridge is an outright action movie as the (morally unimpeachable) Doss hauls his friends to safety while they machine gun the ‘nips’ to hell. The more the film revels in spectacle, the more Doss’ commitment to non-violence seems akin to the ethical codes of TV’s Dexter ‘only kills serial killers’ Morgan or the ‘I won’t kill you but I don’t have to save you’ Batman of Batman Begins. Ethical conviction is pretty adaptable if you really, really need a bunch of people to die for the sake of country and genre conventions.
And so, Hacksaw Ridge becomes another ode to soldierly bravery. Doss’ bravery and commitment to the war effort remain aptly presented; his (or others’) non-violent convictions and their relationship to conflict, not so much.