Hacksaw Ridge is about two things: religion (specifically, Christianity) and violence. It is not, for better or worse, about religious violence. Director Mel Gibson had spent the better part of the last twenty years pontificating about Jesus, his own come-to-Jesus-cum-anti-Judaism, so if this movie was to be about dying on That Hill, it was to be taken as an on-brand, but ultimately eye-rolling joke. Even worse, it was to be a joke about the life of a man whose bravery, religion, and selflessness in wartime saved dozens of lives and helped to propel the American victory in the Eastern Theatre.
Violence and religion, like everything else, deserve a healthy dose of comedy, but the evanescent tonal balance, critical for all directors, but more so for microscope attractor Gibson was critical. And if the film is going to be shockingly violent (see: Saving Private Ryan) it had better be compelling to watch. If the gore is overwhelming, it had better be accurate and respected. If the film is going to be a plus-one for religion as a pursuit, it had better be humanistic. Gibson strikes this balance well and also makes a compelling case for personal devotion to a Christian God without telling the audience that this is the only path.
Hacksaw Ridge‘s titular character, Desmond Doss, is a transfixing character, too. He makes a case for conviction and country and, through some goofy but earnest exposition, gets to serve his country in World War II as a medic who chooses, in fact insists, on not carrying a weapon. His commanding officers, to a T, are all convinced that this weakens the unit and that his brothers-in-arms cannot trust him if he cannot shoot the enemy during engagement. The crux, and it is well-telegraphed, is that this is not the case and Private Doss winds up saving lives through sheer luck, it seems, though Gibson and Doss both claim that bullets barely grazed him through divine intervention. While I, and an increasingly growing population, would dismiss this outright, it works for Doss and so he had entered into the annals of history as a war hero, mostly underappreciated (it seems by design) until Gibson struck the right balance of Doss’ heroism and religiosity. Even overt themes of Baptism and Doss’ non-metaphoric Bible clutching work because the audience knows that Doss’ religion was his and His, but not necessarily ours.
It is somewhat ironic and self-referential that all religion preaches proselytizing as a way to replicate belief to the point of simulacra and non-objective truth, expects individual relationships with each’s respective god(s). No one belief system, or lack of one, is better than any other and people cling to their own with violent force. Collectively a group of religious folks is called a congregation and collectively humans have found a way to find scorn for the Other through collective belief; note the factions of Christianity which have splintered nation-states, or the almost-identical versions of Islam that pits populations together in proxy wars that have undoubtedly killed tens of millions over 14 centuries.
Hacksaw Ridge does not aim to confirm any of this. It is watchable as a war movie whose main character happens to be religious; or a religious movie that happens to involve a conflict as a test of and testament to Faith as salvation. Or, it is watchable is a terribly interesting character study, supremely acted by Andrew Garfield. Anyway it slices, this is a film worthy of critical laud and rightly nominated as a Best Picture candidate.
Perhaps not so eerily Hacksaw Ridge bears a striking resemblance to Sergeant York, whose titular character also refused to bear arms and who also turned to his Christianity as cover for his desire not to kill. While York eventually dons a rifle to devastating effect, Doss never does.
Expanding to explore the film’s individualism, either is correct religion, and neither can be chastised nor decried as propaganda, which is the highest form of flattery to the general, concerned public looking for entertainment.
All the above and more said and Hacksaw Ridge had no actual chance to win Best Picture in 2016. It was neither large enough nor especially reflective of the year’s zeitgeist defining moments. Winner Moonlight was always going to win from the second its promotional materials hit the wires (until it almost laughably did not). Moonlight made sure its audience knew to the strongest possible effect that the audience was going to explore blackness, homosexuality, and puberty all at the same time, which is enough to fill more than a column of modern longform journalism. Manchester By The Sea, whose bleakness was matched almost by its lack of blackness, could not and will not be remembered for matching Moonlight‘s collective and visually striking highs. The others — Arrival, Fences, Hell or Highwater, Hidden Figures, La La Land, and Lion — match up at some level, and are all a good watch, but in an age of post-post-modernism, the primordial mulch needs to be precariously stapled back together for a take on part to be relevant to all.