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Screenings and Meanings

By Gerald Schmitz

11/23/2016

Gerald SchmitzGibson’s war return to the year’s most essential film

 

Hacksaw Ridge (U.S.)
Billy Lynn’s Halftime
Walk (U.S./U.K./China)
Allied (U.S./U.K.)
Fire at Sea (Italy/France)

War dramas never go out of fashion in the movies. Released Remembrance Day was Ang Lee’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (https://www.facebook.com/BillyLynnMovie/) about American soldiers in Iraq. Even after more than seven decades, the Second World War continues to be a movie-making staple. Opening today from director Robert Zemeckis is Allied (http://www.alliedmovie.com/), a story of deadly 1940s wartime intrigue set in North Africa and London. First to hit the big screen in early November was Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge (http://www.hacksawridge.movie/), based on a true story. It could be seen as a redemption after his absence from the director’s chair for a decade following a drunk driving incident during which he went on an anti-Semitic racist rant.

Not everyone is ready to forgive and forget. Nonetheless, Gibson’s comeback war epic premiered at the Venice Film Festival to a standing ovation.

The story is that of Private Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), a devout Seventh Day Adventist and conscientious objector whose life-saving exploits during the May 1945 battle to take Okinawa from the Japanese were uniquely heroic. The movie, shot in Gibson’s native Australia using a number of Aussie actors, opens in the midst of those hellfires with a voiceover of Doss reciting the Lord’s words. It then swiftly shifts to his childhood 16 years earlier in Virginia’s Blue Ridge mountains when a fight with his brother scares him. Worse, his father (Hugo Weaving) is an embittered First World War veteran who abuses alcohol and his family. As a young man Doss will confront him in a way that confirms his belief there are no exceptions to the sacred commandment against killing another person. He resolves never again to pick up a gun. But when war comes and his brother signs up despite parental disapproval, Doss deems it his patriotic duty also to serve in a just cause — as a medic dedicated to “saving people not killing them.”

Before that comes the element of sweet romance as Doss falls for a beautiful young nurse, Dorothy (Teresa Palmer), who gives him a Bible with her picture in it. Then it’s off to basic training at Fort Jackson where Doss, identifying as a “conscientious co-operator,” is subjected to ridicule and assaults from fellow recruits. Vince Vaughn plays a surly shouting sergeant and Sam Worthington a company captain who tries to drum Doss out as unfit. Under threat of court martial and military prison he’s denied leave to attend his own wedding. An eleventh-hour fatherly intervention saves the day.

Doss’s wish granted to be an unarmed combat medic, the remaining hour thrusts us into the horror of the campaign to take Okinawa’s Hacksaw Ridge fiercely defended by an indiscriminate mass of fanatical Japanese. This is Gibson’s wheelhouse and he delivers an orgy of blood, guts and gore, of bodies blown apart and incinerated. Doss takes enormous risks amid the carnage, credited with saving 75 wounded men left for dead on the blasted battlefield. His survival is almost as miraculous as his feats for which he was awarded the Medal of Honour. His faith and courage made believers of skeptics. The movie closes with brief interview clips of Doss himself shortly before he died in 2006 and of several other veterans including the captain whose life he saved.

Garfield, who plays a 17th century Jesuit missionary to Japan in Martin Scorsese’s forthcoming Silence, gives a convincing performance. But can a war movie so steeped in graphic violence still claim to honour Doss’s ideals of Christian pacifism? Gibson, a practising Catholic, obviously thinks so. I have doubts given how much the camera lingers on the bloodletting in a macabre theatre of death. I can’t shake the sense that Doss’s godly character under fire serves to justify portraying a killing ground where good Americans rightly destroy their enemy. It’s a paradox to say the least.

***

Lee’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, adapted from Ben Fountain’s 2012 eponymous novel, focuses on the exploitation of supposed heroic actions of the titular soldier during a 2004 Iraq War firefight involving his Bravo Squad platoon. Lynn (Joe Alwyn), a 19-year-old Texan, is brought back with his army mates for a victory tour showcased during the halftime show of a Dallas Cowboys Thanksgiving Day football match. Hail to the red-blooded warriors on the field at home and abroad. It’s war propaganda as cheerleading red-state entertainment. The mythologizing of what Lynn actually experienced — a fleeting distrusted celebrity that plays on his post-traumatic state of mind — comes up against the concerns expressed by his anti-war sister Kathryn (Kristen Stewart).

Lee’s film is being called revolutionary because of the way he shot it, in 3D with an ultra-high 4k resolution and frame rate of 120 per second, five times the normal, though it will be fully projected that way in only a few major cities. While the jury is out on the merits of such hyper-realism, the story has enough strengths to be worth seeing.

***

Allied, from director Robert Zemeckis, ostensibly based on a true story by screenwriter Steven Knight, takes us back to a more traditional war drama in a more noble necessary effort, namely to prevail against Nazi Germany. It also features star turns by Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard. He plays Max Vatan, a Canadian intelligence office in North Africa. She plays Marianne Beausejour, a French resistance fighter. A 1942 secret mission of assassination brings them together. They fall in love, later marrying in London and having a child. That is the setup for what turns into a high-stakes thriller when Max is confronted with allegations from his superiors who suspect Marianne of being a spy for the Germans. Unless he can somehow prove her innocence, he is given the choice of killing her by his own hand or being executed for not carrying out a direct command.

It would be hard to imagine a more difficult or agonizing situation. I won’t say more because a tale of espionage and romance like this only works if the suspense can be maintained until the moment of truth.

***

At a time when there have never been more displaced people, migrants and refugees — over 60 million — since the Second World War, Gianfranco Rosi’s disturbing and enigmatic Fire at Sea (http://www.fireatsea.com/) may be the year’s most important film. It was awarded the golden bear at the Berlin Film Festival in February, the second year in a row a documentary has taken the top prize.

Director Rosi spent a year on the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa (only 12.9 square kilometres), which lies between the Sicilian and Libyan coasts. Rosi was a one-man crew, serving as his own camera and soundman. Beyond a brief opening statement of facts, there’s no narration in the style of cinema verité. During the past 20 years 400,000 people have reached the island on perilous journeys to cross the Mediterranean to Europe; over 15,000 have perished. Add to that this year’s death toll to date of over 4,000.

The title comes from a Second World War Sicilian song referring to a 1943 incident before Italy’s surrender when the bombing of a warship in Lampedusa’s harbour made the sea seem to be on fire. It’s played on a local radio station and is part of the historical imagination of Samuele, a 12-year-old boy with a lazy eye in a multi-generational seafaring family. Their daily island existence stands in sharp counterpoint to the wrenching scenes of search and rescue, of workers in white hazmat suits coping with the hundreds on overcrowded rickety boats, the sick, the dying and the dead. Even the lucky survivors have appalling stories to tell. The gentle humane local doctor, Pietro Bartolo, provides moving witness to this ocean of human misery.

Against that reality, ordinary life for islanders goes on as it must. Samuele plays boyish games with a friend and struggles to find his sea legs. He seems unaffected by what’s happening to the “poor souls” washing up on the shores, yet complains to Bartolo of symptoms that could be caused by anxiety.

The unspoken question is of the kind of world he will inherit. The enormity of the crisis is such that Lampedusans, however sympathetic, can hardly bear responsible for a problem they have no hand in creating. What Rosi’s observant camera does so poignantly and potently is to put us in their shoes side by side a long-standing situation that should offend the conscience of the world.

With Trump’s America promising to shut its doors, how we respond to this desperate tide will be the test of our humanity.