Piece by Piece: A Deconstruction of Hacksaw Ridge

In Piece by Piece we will be focusing on films in a much more detailed way, taking a look at the flaws and strengths of specific films. First up is Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge

Advertisements

Based on the real life story of Desmond T Doss, a medic in the second World War who signed up despite his refusal to use a rifle. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for his services at the battle of Okinawa. Andrew Garfield takes lead in this war time biopic directed by controversial figure Mel Gibson, who appears to be on the road to recovery of his reputation. Hacksaw Ridge has been nominated for 6 Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor.

One of the first things that struck me upon leaving the cinema after seeing Hacksaw Ridge was how the film was clearly segmented into three disparate acts much more obviously than your usual film. So I am going to tackle each of these in order to give an overview before posing the issues I have with the film.

This article will be spoiler heavy.

ACT ONE

The film sets itself up in traditional biopic style, showing us Doss’ childhood and putting into place the lessons that young Desmond learned that made him a hero in later life. While the film is efficient in doing this, and is clearly a fan of the character they are portraying it severely lacks subtlety. Exposition in the film is detailed but still somehow feels rushed. In the opening Desmond is threatened with a belt by his father after a violent altercation involving a brick, one scene later Desmond uses a brick to prop up a car that has crushed a man’s leg and applies a tourniquet using his belt. The film lacks subtlety from the beginning and continues in this vain for the rest of the film. The opening, pre-war scenes set in Virginia are all very melodramatic and colourful.garfield

Doss lives in a perfect Americana ripped straight from a Steinbeck novel, and Garfield plays the role like a toned-down Forrest Gump, all smiles and mild-mannered sincerity. He hikes to the top of gorgeous mountains with his sweetheart and helps his church and community. The whole opening is long winded and indulgent, it gets through the messages it wishes to in the first few minutes but carries on for half an hour more. The conclusion of this act is Doss deciding to become an army medic, something which he trains for by reading a book on anatomy, which the film dedicates little time to.

ACT TWO

Once Doss volunteers for the war he is thrown into a very familiar scene for all film fans, the introduction to B company could be ripped right from Aliens or Starship Troopers. Followed by a Full Metal Jacket style dressing down sequence by Sergeant Howell (Vince Vaughn). It is the most humorous sequence of the film and provides an effective method of exposition, introducing us to soldiers through funny insults helps their identification later in the film. This is then predictably followed by a training montage of an obstacle course which we have all seen a hundred times before, it is in this sequence that the film begins to fall into the trap of a condition I like to call Protagonitis, wherein the main character is the best for no clear reason. Doss finishes first in the obstacle course on his first day, establishing him as the most physically fit member of the company. Yet the strength of Doss is in his persistence and drive rather than physical fitness, he is even referred to as a corn stalk by Sergeant Howell. By establishing him as a man of peak physical fitness it devalues the achievements of later in the film.pacifism

The main dramatic force of the film then takes hold, where Doss refuses to touch a rifle even in training and his company and superiors begin to turn on him. There is not much to say about this portion of the film as it is effective and moving, as Doss fights against all reason to preserve his principles. His fellow soldiers attack him in his bunk, he is threatened with court-marshal and attempts are made to have him diagnosed as unfit for service. Through all these trials Doss stays strong to his beliefs and refuses to bear arms.

ACT THREE

In the final third of the film we are introduced to the fabled war we’ve been so prepared for, and it is here that the film is at its most memorable. B Company must climb above the ridge and take control of it from the Japanese, when they get to the top they are faced with a shocking number of combatants. The Japanese soldiers have only been talked about in hushed tones up to this point and they are introduced through a brutal battle scene which focuses on the death and firepower on display. Bodies are flung about like ragdolls and people are burned alive, limbs fall away in each shot and within seconds each soldier is covered in blood and dirt. The battlefield consists of shadowy mounds of dirt, debris and corpses and the choreography of the fighting and the immense sense of space displayed is on par with Saving Private Ryan or Band of Brothers. The battle is long and arduous and serves as a satisfactory display of the scale of push back that B Company is facing.battleground

Whilst the battle takes up a lot of time and features what is most likely the majority of the film’s budget it serves purely as a set up for the story of Doss’ bravery. He stays up on top of the ridge after being ordered to retreat, collects as many wounded as he can and winches them down to safety by hand as Japanese soldiers patrol the battleground executing survivors, all while unarmed. It is an amazing story of willpower that is worthy of all the build-up it has received and is a fitting conclusion to what is a moving and powerful film.

Dramatic Exaggeration and the True-Life Story

There is a problem that I have which will not leave me, and is indicative of my biggest issue with Hacksaw Ridge, and that is displayed in the images below:

ridge.jpg

The images show a photograph at the time of the real contested ridge and the dramatized version put on to film. It is understandably a part of filmmaking to make everything bigger and better, but it is questionable in a true to life story. There is a huge difference between lowering the bodies of 75 men down a 50ft cliff and a 200ft cliff, and by exaggerating the size of the outcrop Desmond Doss crosses the line from strength of character to superhuman. It could be argued that the film does a disservice to the true heroism at the centre of the film by muddying the story with fabrications.

It is symbolic of the film suffering from Protagonitis, it reveres its hero in such a way as to make him appear almost unrealistic, and by doing this films make other, reliable moments of the film appear unreliable.

In the second act Doss is refused furlough and imprisoned by the military on what is supposed to be his wedding day. Supposedly Desmond’s friends and family had all gathered in the church waiting for the groom despite him not being home yet. Dorothy is wearing white and standing at the front of the church when she realises her fiancé isn’t turning up. Assumedly they had begun all the proceedings in advance. It is exactly this type of constructed dramatic nonsense that adds nothing to the story and is a failing of the person who adapted it. The only purpose it serves is to sow doubt into the minds of the viewer, when this clearly fake sequence occurs it makes you question the validity of the rest of the claims that the film makes.

  • Did his superiors really try to dismiss him for refusing to bear arms?
  • Did his fellow soldiers really threaten and degrade him for this?
  • Did he really treat wounded enemy soldiers?

These issues are all brought in to question when the viewer is faced with the unbelievable and there is nothing more frustrating than the unnecessarily unbelievable. The story in itself is awe inspiring and a testament to a real-life hero, then why do the filmmakers add an extra 150ft to the ridge’s height, and make him miss his wedding day when he was in fact married before he left West Virginia, why must his father go over his head to get him pardoned when in fact he did not effect the case at all in real life.

The answer to the questions listed above is yes, by the way.

It is kind of insulting to the power of the real story to tweak it in such a way, the actions speak for themselves, the story is amazing all by itself. It is a shame that the film is as manipulative as it is, because the skill on display is incredible, the sound design is some of the best work I’ve heard in years and the realism of the sets and props are visceral and realised to an amazing degree.

The question which I want to ask is whether it is necessary to exaggerate in films based on true events for dramatic tension, should directors and screenwriters work with what they are given only or is this practice commonplace for a reason? I believe it tarnishes what is otherwise a brilliantly made film.

doss

Morals and the War Movie

Hacksaw Ridge is a film about how different people approach acts of war, Desmond Doss’ religion means that he is greatly opposed to killing. He acknowledges that it is a necessary part of war, but a necessary part of war that he needn’t be privy to, he can serve in his own way. It is a strong message that seems to defy reason in favour of morals. People tell Desmond in the film to just pick up a gun, train in using it but never use it in battle, people argue that he should at least have the option to save his own life in an emergency, and others claim that a wartime is a special circumstance where daily responsibilities are put aside and the moral spectrum is shifted a few inches to the right.

Yet Desmond does not allow exterior circumstances to change his behaviours, he sees it as a compromise of his belief, in The Conscientious Objector Doss states “I knew if I ever once compromised, I was gonna be in trouble… because if you can compromise once, you can compromise again.”

In the film, Desmond Doss stands tall as a representation of a man who will not engage in a moral slippery slope, it is admirable and inspiring and one should assume is the message of the film overall. However, this is called into question by the dramatic ending of the film which is a rousing montage set to inspirational music, of American soldiers murdering droves of Japanese soldiers, of them burning alive and their leader performing Seppuku. It revels completely in the violence and gore of the situation without an irony, a strange choice for a film about saving people’s lives while faced with death and violence at every turn. The final triumphant battle scene is a celebration of the brutalism of war instead of a meditation on the power of saving lives.

The scene leaves a sour taste in the mouth. If it were not followed up by a credit sequence of real life interviews with Desmond Doss and others involved it would compromise the moral lesson of the film entirely. It calls into question the intention of the film, which seems to be arguing for war as a necessity yet exploits it for entertainment as much as it can.

Hacksaw Ridge is, on the surface, the best war movie in years

Gibson’s dramatic license needs to be revoked

War is a staple of cinema. Since the days of Méliès, Pathe and Edison there has been a desire for films to show what most people will have never seen. Before the invention of cinema, and for some time afterwards, there was no way to see what a battle really looked like. The only interpretations available to the public were in paintings and the written word. War battles gave silent filmmakers an easy shortcut to making something that is fantastical, out of this world, and intensely visual: the people who are dressed differently are the bad guys, the people who fall have been shot. Storytelling is at its core about binary oppositions, about positioning a subject that represents one ideal against a subject that represents the opposite (light side v dark side, nature v technology). This structure is neatly laid out in war, the armies even wear different colours to aid the process. War films in the early days, however, were a guessing game, less based in reality than what we know now. Once wars took place in a world where photo and filmography existed newsreels and photos from the front line allowed for a clear evidence of something that had thus far consisted mainly of eye witness testimony.

Hacksaw Ridge is a real war story about Desmond Doss, a medic who served in WWII at the battle of Okinawa. As a true to life story it has its foot placed firmly in the realm of reality. Andrew Garfield plays the medic, who was a conscientious objector who volunteered himself to support the war effort on the field as opposed to back home. The opposition of the film however, comes not from the opposing side of the war but from the American side, where Doss is refused the right to serve while remaining pacifist and not touching a gun. Here, the binary opposition comes from pacifism v pugilism.

The film is somewhat disjointed due to its clear separation into three acts, the home life section which plays like Forrest Gump’s romance with Jenny and sets the story in motion. The second act is a traditional army training tale that draws influence from Full Metal Jacket and plays out like The Secret War of Lisa Simpson, followed by Doss facing possible court-marshal for his pacifism. Finally, the film becomes an out and out war film a ’la Saving Private Ryan. The film is oddly structured, facing pacing issues by indulging itself too much in its first act and saving all its violence for the final act but all in all the final battle sequences are built up to well with sufficient characterisation driving our desire to see Desmond Doss succeed.

I did have problems with the ending of the film however, detailed here. The film has a positive message of staying true to what you believe in and honours the peacekeeper, yet at times seems to revel in violence and destruction in a way that is at odds with the moral baseline of the film. There are also issues with the film being somewhat too emotionally manipulative, containing a rushed romantic plot that is filled to the brim with clichéd lines of dialogue and many moments where the film stops to state how you should be feeling at the time. The film is brilliantly directed and the visuals do their job so well that words are not always needed yet are always used. In addition, our main character is somewhat too idealised, with no discernible flaws aside from his pacifism. Yet that can be forgiven when a film is made to honour a real-life hero, but it also does appear that the main aim of the film is to win awards.

Andrew Garfield has been nominated for an Oscar for his performance as Desmond Doss and it’s not hard to see why, he imbues the character with a sweet naivety that radiates from his goofy, overactive smile. He remains naturalistic and believable as the only American soldier that isn’t brimming with testosterone. Other performances are straight forward and unflashy and serve to highlight how clearly Doss is in an unfamiliar environment.

The film is an achievement in production design, creating an intensely believable and gritty battleground that has a great sense of space and danger. Plaudits must go to the sound design team, that manages to create a magnificent, breathing 3D world in the final act of the film. Bullets hit as hard as possible, explosions won’t let up and the danger the soldiers face is elevated because of the intense sound within.

Recommendation

Hacksaw Ridge is a film that will play to large audiences, there is not much to use to take away from it on a surface level. It is brilliantly crafted, slickly designed and impressively layered, every facet of the film exudes effort. Where it falls apart is in its generic story beats, however they are executed well enough to excuse themselves.

I, personally, have issues with the unnecessary over-dramatization that is applied but I believe most people will not. If the occasional historical inaccuracy can be forgiven then this is a great film suitable for everyone with only odd pacing and a weak romance subplot to hold it back.

Affleck’s latest stumbles out the gate

Live by Night tells a compelling character drama beneath a basic gangster film

Ben Affleck has a solid track record as a director, whilst maintaining a steady level of entertainment his films have managed to be increasingly serious, pulpy fiction that is based in a heavy-set reality. Live by Night is the latest production from the Boston based star. He comes fresh from his DC regimented fitness regimen into ill-fitting suits and prohibition era Florida.

Affleck’s lead, Joe Coughlin, is a principled man, we are introduced to this by the first scene of the film, voice over narration over still of the first world war. After serving Joe grew disdainful of hierarchies and refuses to take orders from another man again; “I left a soldier, I came back an outlaw.” Therein lies the central conflict of the movie and Joe Coughlin’s character. He enters a life of crime to avoid taking orders until he finds himself coerced into organised crime and so into a structure of taking orders once more. The dramatic weight of the movie rests in the conflict built into Joe. The issue is whether he can maintain his steadfast principles whilst finding success in a business that is built by people who hold none.

The dialogue of the characters is poetic and deliberate, it’s all very cinematic and unreal. Joe’s narration provides exposition for each scene as we hop from conversation to conversation. If I was being harsh I would say that the film breaks the rules of ‘show, don’t tell’ all too often. It is clear when watching that the film was based off a book and in this case, it is not necessarily a compliment.

Live by Night wanders on the fringes of being just like films you’ve seen a hundred times before. It possesses the same story beats as films like Goodfellas and Donnie Brasco but tries to hold on to the central premise that this is a film about one man’s desire to remain a ‘good man.’ At some points this comes off but for too much of the film it loses site of what it is and instead becomes a basic gangster film that offers nothing new.

The gangster style conflicts at the centre of the film are all too easy to deal with. Each victory comes from hiding behind a wall and then shooting your enemy and the repercussions of the violence are uniformly skipped past via montages that try to coast by on the merits of their cinematography and nothing more. The film takes the easy route too often with the meat of its story, Joe battles against Italian and Irish mobsters, evangelical Christians and the KKK. It’s hard to come up with a collective of people easier to demonise outside of the Nazis, this means the film dedicates very little time to developing its threats. Meaning that the main villains of the film never seem to truly threaten Joe. This leads to the film’s most frustrating sequence, where a confrontation with the KKK that has been building up for most of the film is completely resolved in a two-minute montage.

All secondary characters in the movie appear to be hugely undeveloped, so much so that they appear to be irrelevant to how the story progresses. Characters are inorganically brought into the story to serve their purpose and then leave when the story is finished with them. The majority of characters are low effort stereotypes with little likeable qualities or charisma, there is a chance that this was an intentional in order to demonise criminals and thugs who intend to die as criminals and thugs, but it is almost too easy of a way to shift empathy onto Joe as the only humanised character in the film.

There seems to have been a concerted effort to make Sienna Miller’s Emma appear as some sort of moral litmus paper for Affleck’s character. However, his circumstances, his wife, his career and behaviour perform this same purpose and so she is an extremity that the film could do without. All in all too many things in the film serve the same purpose. The film does not mix up the action and drama in enough significant ways to keep it interesting and takes too long to get going. The film tries to reflect Joe’s ambivalence toward crime and wholesomeness, but in doing so it results in a beige character drama with a light crime overlay.

Recommendation

Live by Night appears to be disinterested in 90% of its content, it is a gangster film that doesn’t want to talk about gangster life. If you have managed to see any of the films near non-existent marketing then you may feel hard done by the film not doing what it says on the tin, but for all the film’s negatives it is still an interesting character drama about a man conflicted.

It deserves commendations for appearing as if it were a regular gangster film when in fact it is telling a different, more humanist story. It is a film for contemplation rather than cheap thrills, and when viewed as such it is a rewarding experience with some great dialogue and interesting reflections. It just wastes too much of its screen time.