After the notorious drunk-driving incident in 2006, in which inflammatory comments were made to the LAPD, there was always going to be a question mark over Mel Gibson’s return to the public eye. Hollywood is a forgiving town, but not everyone has the right to be forgiven and, as an Australian, Gibson looked likely to be sent to the back of the queue.
An attempt at rehabilitation in Jodie Foster’s bizarre 2011 comedy drama The Beaver bombed and since then the actor has been banished to the hinterlands of the action genre, falling way short of a comeback in the flop has-been ensemble flick The Expendables 3.
Perhaps it’s significant that his biggest step towards reconciliation has been made behind the camera, with a love letter to America – albeit one made, like his previous hits Apocalypto and The Passion of the Christ, so independently of the Hollywood system that it was shot entirely in Australia.
And yet it proved to be the winning ticket; a blatant, unsubtle story of humility and redemption, Hacksaw Ridge has hauled in an impressive six Academy Award nominations, including the crucial best director nod for Gibson himself.
Anyone who’s ever seen a film by Mel Gibson – a director with a penchant for masochistic heroes – will be unsurprised to hear that the main character US Army medic Desmond T Doss (Andrew Garfield) is bruised, battered and generally put through the wringer.
But for once this isn’t simply dramatic licence. Based very closely on a true story, Hacksaw Ridge is about a conscientious objector who joined the army but refused to fight or even touch a firearm, enduring the scorn and physical bullying of his fellow soldiers before shocking them all with an astonishing feat of bravery during the hellish battle of Okinawa in the summer of 1945.
In this respect, the film is very much of two halves. The first is really rather quaint, almost like a Hallmark film in its sentimentality. Doss is a fervently religious family man and a disappointment to his alcoholic First World War veteran father (Hugo Weaving in a role one can’t help but imagine Gibson playing).
On joining the army, Doss is branded a coward, facing the wrath of his platoon, a situation exacerbated by drill sergeant Howell (Vince Vaughn at his sardonic best). Doss takes the beatings with as much grace as he can muster, finally breaking down in solitary confinement after a court martial, but just as this piety starts to become wearing, Gibson takes us to the arena of war.
Which is where the film, literally, explodes. Pulling no punches, Gibson makes the famously savage opening of Saving Private Ryan look like the PG trailer for a super-violent main feature. No one is safe on this infernal island: bullets and grenades fly, while the use of flamethrowers is shown in all its gruesome, inhuman detail.
Yet Garfield, previously so passive, proves a surprisingly viable hero in all this mayhem, performing breathtaking acts of courage that one instinctively knows must pale next to the horrors of the real thing.
This respect and understanding for sheer human willpower is what Gibson does best, and it may be what the Academy sees in him. After all, as a man, let alone a director, he understands that doing the right thing is never easy – rather, a challenge to be faced even against the most catastrophic of odds.