O YE OF LITTLE FAITH (At the Multiplex: January, 2017)

Hacksaw Ridge (D. Mel Gibson)

Mel Gibson is, rather famously, a devotee of a brand of right-wing Catholicism (that no one believes has subsumed mainstream Catholicism), which is a rough equivalent of the Protestant Fundamentalism which is now supposed, by all the best people, to have subsumed mainstream Protestantism. This may have been why he was drawn to the story of Desmond Doss, a Seventh Day Adventist who, as a WWII conscientious objector, became one of that war’s great heroes in a manner very different than Alvin York, the conscientious objector who had been a great hero of WWI.

Whatever Gibson’s reasons, I’m not sure he was the right person to tell this story.

Or, to put it more directly, I’m not sure that the Mel Gibson who has been striving mightily these last few years to get back in Hollywood’s good graces, was the right person to tell this story.

Mind you, what is here is good. It punches all the buttons a non-Christian audience would expect to have punched and a few that folks who don’t mind a little Christianity might expect as well. The acting is good (especially by Andrew Garland as Doss and Vince Vaughn as his hard-ass sergeant). Gibson’s direction is mostly crisp and unfussy, only straying when he reaches here and there for inspiration (artistic, not religious, though if you can’t find one, it’s unlikely you’ll find the other). And the principal action scenes, which follow Doss as a medic who, without benefit of a weapon (which he refuses to carry), delivers body after wounded body from a nightmarish no man’s land which has opened up between Japanese soldiers and American G.I.s during the brutal fight for Okinawa, are tense and moving. The movie even ends with snippets from a documentary about the now-deceased Doss, in which he and some of the seventy-five men he saved confirm bits of the improbable story we’ve just seen and it makes for a lovely, understated coda.

But I found the movie more than a little disappointing for what it did not do, which was depict Doss as a man of a specific faith that must, by its very existence in a believer’s life, transcend any secular notion of redemption or honor.

That is, it does not really seek to understand the one really important thing one would expect from a director who has previously worn his religiosity so explicitly–one might say garrulously–on his sleeve.

Namely, why religion?

And why this particular religion?

That Doss is a man of faith is pounded home, you might say, religiously. But the source of his faith is shown to be not divine inspiration but, via a flashback that comes near the end of the film, a mere extension of an “event” of the sort which is common enough to have led men in a host of different directions (one such man, Bill Clinton, even went into politics). In other words, Doss’s particular conviction is shown as his own choice and a choice of convenience at that–an option among therapies that one can forgive a Virginia hillbilly for not recognizing as a crutch in a time and place where shrinks were in short supply.

As any believer knows, though, your choice is only half the equation. The part where God reaches out His hand (which must be at least as familiar to Seventh Day Adventists and Opus Dei Catholics, as it is to, say, Baptists like myself) to offer the sinner a redemption he could not otherwise hope to find, is curiously missing.

Back when Hollywood was principally in the business of telling stories, they knew better. Watch Sergeant York, Ben Hur, The Robe, The Nun’s Story (the latter three made by Jews who escaped the Holocaust, Ben Hur by a man whose family did not)¬†and, whatever one thinks of them, they all acknowledge the primacy of the hero’s (or heroine’s) conversion. Having had a dust-up with your old man in your teenage years, however horrific the details, does not explain an unarmed man’s willingness to defy an order to retreat from one of the most hellish battlefields man has ever created on God’s earth, so that he can rescue the wounded.

For that, you probably need to have seen the light.

Obviously, the light itself can led different men down different paths. Desmond Doss won his Medal of Honor for saving men, Alvin York won his for killing them. My father, who hailed from the same part of the woods as Doss’s western Virginia and York’s east Tennessee, was sent to a firefighting unit (a more normal assignment for C.O.’s, even those who, like my dad, had their status rejected by the draft board) and shortened his time after VJ day by volunteering for psychiatric experiments. Then again, he didn’t really see the light until the late sixties when he rejoined the faith and wound up becoming a missionary.

So it goes. But one thing all three men could have told you is that the story of a Christian without reference to his specifically Christian conversion is a story with a hole in its center. Without that, Hacksaw Ridge is just a well-made war movie and amounts to little more than Mel Gibson’s self-conscious (and, to all appearances, successful) attempt to get back in the good graces of a Hollywood which seems now willing to forgive his anti-Semitism, racism, misogyny, et al, just so long as he doesn’t pretend those crazy Christians are motivated by their Christianity (as opposed to seeking “comfort” within it)–that any acts of heroism they may have committed are coincidental to their faith, as opposed to a feature.

Hacksaw Ridge is hardly without value–if Casey Affleck really is the competition for Best Actor, and really is going to be bypassed for his Clintonesque sins, my feelings would not be hurt if Garfield won it instead.

It’s just not what it might have been if Mel Gibson had found forgiveness for his own real sins and put his heart back in his chest where any true believer knows it belongs.