Contingency: How We Situate Writing to Create Meaning
By Kati Lewis
A few weeks ago my teenage son asked me to watch Hacksaw Ridge with him. He’d been reading about the feats of WWII Army Medic Desmond T. Doss and wanted to see those heroics play out on the big screen. Normally, I wouldn’t hesitate at the opportunity to have time with my son while watching a war film based on a true story; however, this time was different. The film’s director is Mel Gibson—an actor, producer, and director with an enviable filmography. He’s also a public figure who was arrested for drunk driving, and someone who has made demeaning statements about Jews, women, African-Americans, and the LGBTQ community. Additionally, he took a plea deal in a domestic violence case in which he was accused of hitting his former girlfriend while she held their child. (Gibson implicated himself in some audio recordings of conversations that he had with his ex-girlfriend about the incident.) My brother-in-law was almost killed by a drunk driver several years ago. I know many women who are domestic-violence survivors. For these reasons and more, I don’t care for Mel Gibson or his work.
But my son wanted to share with me the story-world of the first conscientious objector to be awarded the Medal of Honor. I decided to read reviews of the film for some insights into how effectively it represents Doss’s story and what it might possibly say about Gibson.
When I want a critical analysis (interpretation) and evaluation (judgment based on criteria) of the art and ethics employed in a film I’m thinking about spending precious time with, there are a few online publications I typically go to for film reviews because I trust them to offer different and insightful insights in their reviews: Roger Ebert, The New Yorker, Fresh Air, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Rolling Stone. I read each of their Hacksaw Ridge reviews to help me deal with my son–Gibson dilemma. Here are some review-writing characteristics I expected to find—and did find—in those reviews:
Characteristic #1 – A summary of the film’s plot.
Effective reviews and evaluations always contain a summary of the artifact under review/evaluation. This helps audiences understand the artifact under review.
Characteristic #2 – A sound analysis of the film’s cinematic elements (plot, acting, cinematography, character development, setting, etc.).
Effective reviews and evaluations analyze the individual elements of an artifact in order to determine how these elements work and to interpret the messages the artifact conveys.
Characteristic #3 – Several vivid descriptions of how cinematic elements are employed to help the filmmakers achieve their purpose(s).
Effective reviews and evaluations incorporate descriptions and/or quotes/soundbites of the artifact under review. These help the reviewer support judgments they make about the artifact’s effectiveness.
Characteristic #4 – An evaluation of how well and to what effect the film’s cinematic elements work together to help the filmmakers achieve their purpose(s).
Effective reviews and evaluations explain the judgments the reviewer makes about the artifact. Judgments are based on criteria the reviewer establishes before they begin the review or evaluation process. Criteria is based on the purpose and type of artifact under review.
Characteristic #5 – Careful and effective use of outside sources to help flesh out and connect what’s going on in the film with relevant facts both inside and outside of it.
Effective reviews and evaluations make use of secondary sources to show how the artifact fits into larger conversations, to explore the artifact creator’s craft, and to describe the genre and medium moves that the creators make. The types of secondary sources that reviewers use depend on the writer’s rhetorical situation, the purpose of the review, and their audience.
It was these last two review-writing characteristics that created the most striking differences between the reviews that I read:
- Roger Ebert Editor-in-Chief, Matt Zoller Seitz, argues that Hacksaw Ridge is a religious film by paying attention mostly to plot and character development. Seitz examines how the plot—Doss’s experiences during basic training and the assault on Hacksaw Ridge are guided by the soldier’s Seventh-day Adventist beliefs. Additionally, Seitz compares the events in the plot and Gibson’s own religious and personal experiences.
- The New York Times contributor, A.O. Scott, focuses primarily on Gibson’s depictions of battle. He references part of the director’s cinematic résumé to reinforce points about the violence and gore in the battle scenes.
- Fresh Air’s reviewer, David Edelstein, evaluates Gibson’s cinematic themes to argue that Hacksaw Ridge is a continuation of those themes. Edelstein does this by comparing the challenges heroes face to achieve redemption in other Gibson films.
- Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers extends this argument by questioning whether or not the film acts as a symbol of Gibson’s own redemption. Both Edelstein and Travers agree that Gibson has got a knack for telling war stories.
After reading the reviews, I realized that the dilemma for me wasn’t really about whether or not to watch this film—I knew I would watch it with my son because he was so enthralled with Doss’s story. The dilemma was about whether or not the messages in the film and the way those messages are conveyed would be powerful enough for me to sit with abandoning my decade-long Mel Gibson boycott. My hope was that in reading the reviews, they would help me find a way to justify my decision to watch the film. They did.
We watched the film.
Gibson does attempt to tackle the moral conflicts going to war creates, and he clearly seeks to show war as a mental and physical space of unimaginable violence and loss. Doss’s experiences growing up with an alcoholic father and serving as a medic during the assault on Hacksaw Ridge do seem to parallel Gibson’s experiences with personal and public demons.
For me, the film doesn’t redeem Gibson. But it did prompt a discussion with my son about Doss and the ethics of telling someone else’s war story. I owe the reviewers and Gibson a “thank you” for that conversation with my son.