Mel Gibson. There, I’ve said it. For years now, if you said “He Who Shall Not Be Named” in this town, you’d have to turn around three times, spit in all four directions, throw salt over you left shoulder, and say some sort of incantation.
Not to mention, just apologize profusely.
It was like writing “666” on your forehead. But now, Mel is back with a tour de force accomplishment as the director of "Hacksaw Ridge," an uncompromising look at the brutality of war, the power of moral certitude, and one man’s unimaginable heroism. Make no mistake, this film is going to cause no end of Academy consternation and internal soul-searching come awards season. Hollywood may not be as Jewish as it once was, but it's still pretty Jewish and a lot more feminist.
My father was twice set to ship out for Europe during World War II. The first time he broke his ankle jumping from barge to barge, where GIs were being warehoused prior to departure. The second time, he came down with pneumonia from exposure in those same, slime-walled barges. Consequentially, he never fought the Hun, and in his own mind, never proved his bravery as certain buddies of his did. He tends to forget the buddies who didn’t make it back, or came back as only a percentage of their former selves. This film does not short that horrible side of war. It revels in it. And as such, Gibson was the perfect choice to direct.
Being the son of an avatar for a fringe, fundamentalist Christian sect hasn’t hurt Gibson in creating a world view perfect for nakedly portraying both the horrors and possibilities of war and the resurrective possibilities of faith. He understands carnage and the mythic quality of heroism. And he doesn’t shrink from either, as his work, from "Galipoli" to "Braveheart" to "Hacksaw Ridge" demonstrates.
Unfortunately, along the way, it also helped him hone a just-as-naked anti-Semitism and Neanderthal/abusive attitude toward women that ultimately sunk his ship in Hollywood. However, not so oddly enough, Hollywood forgives. The guy who gets a second chance is almost as big a stock story as the hero who goes in under fire and pulls out the wounded.
So how will Gibson and "Hacksaw Ridge" be received? Will it be a case of total rehabilitation?
It’s already gotten great reviews and a 10-minute standing ovation at its premier at the Venice Film Festival. The film hits just about every emotional touchstone available, doing a virtuoso job of blending the sudden and mindless brutality of war with the pathos of underdog suffering - first at the drunken and pathological violence of his father, then just as brutal ostracism in the ranks for his moral convictions. Add the buoyant uplift of true love, and you’ve pretty much hit a four-bagger. (Apparently it tested better with women than men).
Opening as it will, however, in the countdown to the election, and in the wake of the revelations of the character challenges of the Republican nominee, will the talk be of Gibson’s achievement with this film or dwell instead on past revelations of anti-Semitism, and a penchant for bullying and anger, with the obvious comparison to be made? That remains to be seen, as the parallels are stark.
It appears, however, that Gibson’s career, at least behind the camera, is back.
But are we back with him?