Saturday, November 11, 2017

Failed Oscar Campaigns: "Hacksaw Ridge" (2016)

Scene from Hacksaw Ridge
As awards seasons pick up, so do the campaigns to make your film have the best chances at the Best Picture race. However, like a drunken stupor, sometimes these efforts come off as trying too hard and leave behind a trailer of ridiculous flamboyance. Join me on every other Saturday for a highlight of the failed campaigns that make this season as much about prestige as it does about train wrecks. Come for the Harvey Weinstein comments and stay for the history. It's going to be a fun time as I explore cinema's rich history of attempting to matter.

The Movie

Hacksaw Ridge (2016)
Directed By: Mel Gibson
Written By: Robert Schenkkan & Andrew Knight (Screenplay)
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Sam Worthington, Luke Bracey
Genre: Biography, Drama, History
Running Time: 139 minutes
Summary: WWII American Army Medic Desmond T. Doss, who served during the Battle of Okinawa, refuses to kill people, and becomes the first man in American history to receive the Medal of Honor without firing a shot.

The Movie

If there's one thing that The Academy loves, it's a good comeback story. Nowhere was this more evident in 2016 than with director Mel Gibson's Hacksaw Ridge. After a decade of not directing movies, Gibson returned behind the camera with a film that explored pacifism in times of war. Speaking as he directed Braveheart, the idea of a violent film wasn't that strange of an idea from him. However, his approach to the film looked to be a commentary on his own career: a man seeking redemption from people who despise him for his beliefs/previous unfortunate comments that made a comeback seem less than plausible. Given that his acting career had largely stalled in B-level action films in the years leading up to Hacksaw Ridge, the chances of the film doing an insurmountable control on awards season seemed implausible.

But there were a lot of reasons that Hacksaw Ridges resonated with audiences. For many, it was an example of American exceptionalism with Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) going into battle to save lives. The idea of facing horrific chaos appealed to a certain demographic who also enjoyed films such as American Sniper, which were nevertheless controversial for similar reasons. These were violent films that, to more liberal audiences, glorified dated views of war such as the joys of violence and the generalization of the enemy as a faceless threat. Gibson's movie was a throwback to a time when these war dramas were allowed to be complete schadenfreude and be as uncomfortable as they were fulfilling. Even if war cinema hasn't disappeared for long periods, the idea of soldier movies receiving prestige have faded outside of everywhere but a patriotic demographic at the box office.

Beyond that, Hacksaw Ridge symbolized another side of war that was rarely expressed: faith. Along with Silence, 2016 was a big year for Garfield starring in faith-based films. In his war film, he was a pacifist who did his best to avoid violence. While the idea of titillating violence was itself contradictory, audiences clamored onto the film because certain advertisements emphasized Doss' connection to his faith. There were even some faith-based symbols scattered throughout the movie, such as an unconscious Doss on a cot with his arms sprawled out in a Christlike fashion. It even inspired many people to call for more faith-based cinema, which they felt had been poorly represented at the box office.

Hacksaw Ridge was the most divisive movie of the 2016 awards season. It was difficult for some to forgive Gibson for his reprehensible behavior, of which he had even reminded some of earlier that year at the Ricky Gervais-hosted Golden Globes ceremony. For others, it was more a matter of how good the actual movie was. Still, it was a movie that appealed to an audience that felt that they had been largely ignored. Earning over $170 million internationally against a $40 million budget, the film proved to be one of the year's more successful prestige movies, and set everything up for one of the most prescient comebacks of the year. Would it do well at The Oscars, or would it just be seen as problematic? Depending on who answered that question, the answer could go either way.

The Campaign

To summarize, Gibson's career was considered over in 2006 following a drunken exchange with the police that resulted in Anti-Semetic remarks. This didn't go over well, and soon the former big star was now vilified for several years. He wrote an apology letter to the Jewish community, though his reputation was shifted. Considering that later reports included racist and sexist comments, Gibson was no longer seen as a positive figure. When he starred in The Beaver, there was still controversy around him being in a major movie to the point that director Jodie Foster had to defend him publicly. His other acting roles were in largely action movies. He was supposed to star in The Hangover: Part II, but the casts' refusal to work with him resulted in him being dropped from the project. To summarize, he was basically shunned from Hollywood, though his career wasn't necessarily completely "over."

Then came Hacksaw Ridge, which was to be his first directed movie since 2006's Apocalypto. With the large gap, it wasn't enough time to forget his reputation, but it was sold as a comeback project nonetheless. The film premiered at the Venice Film Festival, where it was met with a reported 10 minute standing ovation. While many critics would note that Gibson was still a reprehensible figure, his movie was "perfect." This set things up nicely, creating a positive buzz for the war film. With ads focusing on Doss' faith and pacifism, the film sought to appeal to a conservative audience that was being ignored by other Oscar season movies like La La Land and Moonlight. In some ways, its classical premise also helped to make it seem more pleasing to audiences who enjoyed the war movies of yesteryear. 

Garfield would receive a fair amount of press for Hacksaw Ridge, where he would give charming interviews in which he was candid about his life as well as why he was disappointed in The Amazing Spider-Man franchise. Despite being a film geared at conservative audiences, he compared Doss to presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, believing that he represented a fight for good against figures like fellow candidate Donald Trump. Crew members like editor John Gilbert would even defend Gibson's reputation, claiming that the public perception of him as mean was untrue and that he was a nice guy. The film emphasized redemption, which was shown through a strong box office that benefited from strong word of mouth. The film maintained its audience for several weeks, becoming a sleeper hit along the way.

Among the points that had the least to do with Gibson was sound mixer Kevin O'Connell. While he wasn't a household name, his story quickly became one. He held the record for most Oscar nominations without a win. With 20 nominations, many were impressed by his track record and began to pit him with a potential win for this movie. Speaking as it was seen as a long overdue statue akin to Leonardo DiCaprio's Oscar win for The Revenant, it made him one of the bigger shoe-ins for the evening. Along with receiving other major awards nominations, Hacksaw Ridge was riding the gravy train to Oscar night. Many were divisive about it as a film, but it still left a strong impression on The Academy, with many pitting its success as being one of the big conservative movies (along with Hell or High Water) of the year.

The Payoff

On the event of his Best Actor nomination, Garfield would claim "There must have been some mistake." It was a modesty joke, and one that came as a surprise to everyone else. Many believed that Garfield's work in Silence was more deserving of an award. Likewise, there were other nominees that they felt should've filled in the spots taken by Hacksaw Ridge's six nominations. Following the controversy of Oscars So White, many saw the film's nominations as a step backwards for The Academy. Among the most egregious complaints was the placement of Gibson in the Best Director category, which bothered many more than the film's Best Picture nomination. As a whole, it reflected the culmination of Gibson's comeback perfectly, creating the image that Hollywood had forgiven him.

The film would go on to receive two Oscar wins, including one for O'Connell. This broke the long running curse for him with a Best Sound Mixing win. This was overshadowed by other films that would win bigger and more impressive awards. Still, these two wins became part of a meme that suggested that "Hacksaw Ridge won more Oscars than Silence" complaints that The Academy was recognizing garbage over pure art. It would be difficult to argue against it, but the film's general public buzz made it one of the more noteworthy films of the season. It may have not won too many awards, but it did plenty to elevate Garfield's reputation and finally get him a long overdue Oscar nomination that he deserved for The Social Network.

Hacksaw Ridge is likely to remain a divisive film, with both sides having strong opinions about its quality. With that said, it's an interesting counterargument to modern conversations about celebrities being redeemed. Considering the fall of names like Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and most recently Louis C.K., it's confusing in hindsight to think that Gibson did as well as he did. Still, it was the comeback story of the year, and a narrative that played out nicely for the cast and crew. One can only imagine if another celebrity gets the chance to do something quite as harrowing as Gibson did. Only time will tell. Still, this film marked an intersection of several demographics who felt they deserved a quality movie. It may be hard to call this a perfect film as the audiences at Venice Film Festival would suggest, but it definitely left an impression.

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