Loving + Hacksaw Ridge: Surface History

By any measure, the Supreme Court’s 1967 decision to legalize interracial marriage in Loving v. Virginia ranks as one of the most important in recent history. This is the case, after all, that first recognized a “right to marry.” Obergefell v. Hodges, the 2015 case that legalized same-sex marriage, couldn’t have happened without it. You could even say the verdict captured a shift in the way society thought about marriage: before it was about the “well-being” of offspring, thereafter it was more about love. Yet in spite of all this, Richard Loving and Mildred Jeter’s story, as a quick library catalog search easily demonstrates, has never captured our imagination as much as Brown v. Board of Education, the March on Washington, or any other part of the civil rights movement.

It’s this surprising deficit in recognition that director Jeff Nichols seeks to fill with Loving, a movie that chronicles the story of the Lovings (Joel Edgerton/Ruth Negga) from their initial arrest to the immediate aftermath of the Court’s decision. So many movies about history flounder under the weight of their own narcissism, but one of the better things about this movie is its refusal to rely on conventional storytelling tropes. There’s no sappy climax with soaring music where thousands eagerly gather around their radios and TVs to listen to the Supreme Court deliver its verdict – only a phone call that interrupts Mildred in her chores. The lawyer (Nick Kroll), far from being Thurgood Marshall 2.0, is a total novice better at putting on a façade of bravado than truly connecting with his clients’ plight. And aside from a few scenes with the local sheriff (Martin Csokas), the racism of the era gets conveyed not through Bull Connor-esque explosions of hate but smaller, more natural gestures in daily life, like the way in which both whites and blacks steer clear of Richard and Mildred at parties. If you watched this movie without any context, you’d barely realize any “history” was being made at all.

Then there’s the fact that the story is itself a strike against convention. Never mind 1967; even today, de facto racial segregation remains a huge barrier to overcome. Here, Edgerton and Negga both give performances that are utterly conscious of how shocking Richard and Mildred must have looked to their peers. (And to us moviegoers, too, considering how even now very few Hollywood productions feature interracial couples.) Far from bolting out cheesy expressions of undying love, the two of them express affection through tentative embraces and hesitant glances, as if even they are stunned by the temerity of their coupling. Yet when Richard tells the lawyer towards the end to “just” tell the Supreme Court that “I love my wife,” the quiet, genuine resolve etched into his face says everything about why the two of them have endured arrest, cumbersome work schedules, the disgust of neighbors, and the ACLU’s ambitious, initially unwanted plans to turn their story into an example for the whole nation. The simultaneous fragility and determination they exhibit provide a powerful tribute to the universality of the institution Earl Warren extolled as one of the “basic civil rights of man.”

But for all the good it does, Loving ends up just falling short of perfection. Edgerton and Negga are touching, but the movie never helps us understand what it is they value in their relationship. What attracted them to each other initially? How did they navigate the perils of courtship? What memories or experiences hold them together? You’ll wonder all this, but from the moment it kicks off with Mildred telling Richard that she’s pregnant, the movie spends more energy showing how they fight to keep their marriage than why they want it in the first place. In trying to humanize a historic event, Loving does a magnificent job helping us appreciate the impact of an otherwise abstruse court opinion. It’s so magnificent that, as ironic as it sounds, you might just leave wishing it went one better and told us more about Richard and Mildred as an ordinary pair of lovers – away from the moment they were thrust into a spotlight and made a mark on history.

***

Remember Mel Gibson? It might be hard to appreciate at this point, but before he blackballed himself out of Hollywood ten years ago with his drunk driving, domestic abuse, and various anti-Semitic and homophobic remarks, Gibson was a fairly important, if rather bombastic, moviemaker. “They’ll never take our freedom” – ring a bell, anyone? Well, now it’s 2016, and Gibson is making a go at a late-career comeback with Hacksaw Ridge, a biopic that tells the story of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield). An iconoclast a la William Wallace and Jesus, Doss was a conscientious objector who received a Medal of Honor for saving 75 lives during the Battle of Okinawa in World War II – a record so inspiring that it could easily serve as fodder for an overblown movie treatment.

Unfortunately, “overblown” is the only thing Gibson has ever done well. Here, he begins promisingly by opening in rural Virginia, where we watch a young Doss discover his faith, meet his future wife (Teresa Palmer), and eventually decide to enlist. Yet even in this most simple of first acts, Gibson shows a strange, compulsive need to exaggerate every moment, as if he’s afraid we won’t appreciate Doss’ heroism if it’s not hammered into us in perfect black and white form. His explanation for why Doss dislikes violence thus amounts to little more than an empty, melodramatized opening scene where Doss seriously hurts his brother in a fight and, lo and behold, never again hurts another living being. And thereafter, Gibson can’t go five minutes without inserting some heavy-handed allusion – a rant from Doss’ alcoholic father, a chance sighting of injured veterans in a hospital – to the war we already know is coming. Even the otherwise gentle sequences where Doss attempts to woo his future wife have to share space with annoyingly loud, dramatic background music, as if we’re supposed to see some reflection of Doss’ battlefield valor in his first kiss.

From there, the melodrama only increases after Doss goes off to military camp and is both bullied and court-martialed for his refusal to use firearms. To be sure, Gibson recruited good actors for the job: Vince Vaughn does well as a sergeant trying to balance compassion with discipline, and Garfield has a great moment when, alone in a holding cell, he throws an all-out tantrum, as if even he is exasperated by his insistence on sticking to his conscience. Yet instead of zooming in on these spurts of character development, Gibson ends up focusing most of his energy on depicting every last bit of abuse Doss suffers at the hands of his peers, as if he hopes the sheer injustice of it all will spook you into thinking it’s something profound. Throughout, the utter one-dimensionality of Gibson’s underlying message – boot camp sucks, who knew? – nevertheless remains a pale shadow of the creepy sadism of Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, an older, much better movie about life in the barracksThe blatant application of deus ex machina that eventually gets Doss acquitted – his otherwise-abusive father barges into the courtroom with a letter from the higher-ups, in a moment of uncharacteristic compassion that’s never expanded on – is just the most obvious example of this pervasive superficiality.

Afterwards, if it turns out you’re still engaged, you’ll arrive at what many have called the “best” part of the movie: a graphic depiction of the invasion of Okinawa. For the most part, the action is exquisitely choreographed and sickly enthralling; Saving Private Ryan looks tame by comparison. But no matter how hellish it gets, the fact remains that “war is hell” is all said action ever relies on to keep itself going. Gibson is so enamored with the thrills – at one point, blood literally stains the camera lens – that he doesn’t bother developing the truly interesting moments, like when Doss bumps into and heals a wounded Japanese soldier. And in the last sequence, Gibson stops trying and resorts to tropes worthy of a third-grader: the heroic slow-motion dive, the “epic” battle theme, the enemies resigning themselves to seppuku, and the tears of pain for comrades lost. By the time Doss is lowered from the battlefield in a cringeworthy final image that makes him look like a religious saint, you’ll be longing for all the nuance you never got to see – and praying, above all, that Gibson thinks really hard before he makes his next movie. 10 years in the wilderness have hopefully taught the guy many things. It’s a true shame subtlety doesn’t appear to be one of them.


Loving (2016)

Hacksaw Ridge (2016)
Starring: Joel Edgerton, Ruth Negga, Michael Shannon

Andrew Garfield, Sam Worthington, Vince Vaughn, Teresa Palmer

Running Time: 123 minutes 138 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13 R
Produced by: Ged Doherty, Colin Firth, Nancy Buirski, Sarah Green, Marc Turtletaub, Peter Saraf

Paul Currie, Bruce Davey, William D. Johnson, Bill Mechanic, Brian Oliver, David Permut, Tyler Thompson

Directed by: Jeff Nichols Mel Gibson
Written by: Jeff Nichols

Andrew Knight, Robert Schenkkan, Randall Wallace

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