Wednesday, 23 November 2016


Two war films, directed by two Oscar-winning directors, Hacksaw Ridge (Icon Films), by Mel Gibson, and Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk (Sony Pictures), by Ang Lee, couldn't be more different: the former an old school Hollywood film based on a true story of one soldier's beliefs under fire in WW2; the latter embracing new technology to tell a fictional tale of one soldier's struggle to come to terms with his worldview after deployment in Iraq in 2004.

Based on the exploits of Desmond Doss, a Seventh Day Adventist and conscientious objector who enlisted in World War II as a medic, saving 70 lives in one day during the battle of Okinawa, and several more in the ensuing days - and all whilst refusing to carry a gun -- Hacksaw Ridge plays like a propaganda film, one as much about patriotism as it is faith; perhaps more so the latter given it is a Mel Gibson film, and its lead is played by Brit, Andrew Garfield. (The film was also shot in Australia, and boasts an extensive local cast in supporting (Hugo Weaving and Rachel Griffiths plays Doss's parent) and minor roles.)

That casting is both distracting and a little cringe-inducing (more so, one suspects, for Australian audiences) in the film's first half, which concerns itself with Doss's domestic life and his romance with Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer).

Ostracized by his platoon, and sounded out for abuse by his drill sergeant (Vince Vaughn), Doss refuses to quit, even when imprisoned and threatened with a court marshal.But it's in the theatre of war where Doss excels. So, too, the film. As the bullets fly and various limbs do, too, Hacksaw Ridge -- and Gibson -- comes into its own. Brutal and bloody, Gibson doesn't skimp on the horrors of war, and it's a good thing that the director chose to be old fashioned in his approach and didn't follow Lee down the 3D route.

Based on the novel by Ben Fountain, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk is more of a satire of the propaganda surrounding war, and the need to sell it to the folks back home. But Ang Lee's film isn't quite as barbed as one would hope; the director more concerned with exploring new film technology than critiquing America's 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Since winning an Oscar for the 3D visual extravaganza Life of Pi (2012), Lee has wanted to further push the envelope; choosing to shoot Billy Lynn not just in 3D but at 120 frames per second, for a more immersive and 'real' experience. (The 120fps won't be too immersive for those of us who found Peter Jackson's The Hobbit trilogy to be an ugly, over-lit eyesore.)

For better or worse, Billy Lynn will not be shown in Australian cinemas in its 120fps, 4K or even 3D format, so the technology is really neither here nor there, and Lee's film will have to rely solely on story to engage its audience. (Why Lee felt this story required the new technology to tell it may only be answered by seeing it in the intended format.)

Private Billy Lynn (also played by a Brit, newcomer Joe Alwyn), following his heroics in Iraq which were captured on film and went viral, has been brought home, along with his Bravo platoon, for a victory tour culminating in a halftime celebration at a Dallas football match. Set over the course of a day, Billy flashes back to events in Iraq, and that fateful day, as well as to his homecoming in Stovall, Texas, and his chats on the porch with his anti-war sister (Kristen Stewart), who feels partly responsible for Billy's enlisting in the first place.

Ultimately, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk delivers a 'support the troops, not the war' kind of message, with the uncomfortable suggestion that having seen action, the only place a soldier will ever truly feel at peace again is at war, and with their fellow soldiers.

That's a common theme in both films, for even the initially despised Desmond Doss comes to be embraced by his platoon. And it's pretty hard not to embrace Garfield's 'aw shucks' portrayal of Doss, giving us much more to work with than Alwyn's mostly internalized performance as Billy.

And as a side-by-side comparison of war films, Hacksaw Ridge is the slightest of victors.

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