They say revenge is sweet, but redemption, it seems to me, would be sweeter. The former means you have gotten back at somebody who may have done you wrong before. The latter means you have risen up, you have overcome, you have regained trust, and most likely you’ve done it by rolling up your sleeves and getting to work.
That must be what Mel Gibson is feeling right now.
The Academy Award nominations for 2016 were announced last Monday, and Gibson’s latest work, Hacksaw Ridge, figured prominently with six nominations, including the coveted Best Picture award. Gibson was cited for Best Director, and the movie’s star, Andrew Garfield, is up for Best Actor.
The film is the true story of Desmond Doss, a young man from Virginia whose pacifist beliefs as a Seventh Day Adventist might help him to avoid WW2 service as a conscientious objector. But Doss wants to serve, so he joins the Army and becomes a medic, refusing to carry a weapon. (Spoiler alert!) Doss faces disdain and ridicule from his fellow soldiers and the officers and non-coms in command, but he distinguishes himself under fire while treating his fellow soldiers who are wounded in battle against the Japanese in the Pacific. Like most Gibson films, it is graphic and packs one emotional punch after another. It took 14 years to bring Doss’s story to the screen after development began, spurred along by co-producer Gregory Crosby, grandson of Bing Crosby. Gibson was brought on as director in late 2014. Garfield, a Briton whose previous (and rather dubious) claim to acting fame was starring as Spider-Man in two quickly forgotten movies, turns in a thoroughly believable performance as the brave young medic.
From Down Under to Hollywood fame.
It is Gibson’s first directorial effort since Apocalypto in 2006, which had followed his much-praised blockbuster The Passion of the Christ in 2004. In between his stints in the director’s chair, Gibson had acted in front of the camera a few times, including the comedy The Beaver and the action film The Expendables 3, in which he plays the villain opposite Sylvester Stallone. Gibson was born in New York state and his family emigrated to his grandmother’s native Australia when he was 12. Gibson began his film and TV career in Australia in the late seventies and first gained international movie fame with Mad Max in 1979. Sixteen years later, he directed and starred in Braveheart, which won the Oscar for Best Picture and garnered Gibson the honor for Best Director.
Gibson starred in the Lethal Weapon movies and other well-received films, including a stirring role as a Revolutionary War guerilla fighter in The Patriot. I first saw that movie on a flight across the Atlantic late in 2000, in the days when films were still shown on screens at the front of the cabin rather than on individual, back-of-the-seat screens. In the film, Gibson plays Benjamin Martin, a widowed South Carolina planter whose eldest son (played by a pre-Joker Heath Ledger) decides to join the Continental cause against the British when the Revolutionary War breaks out. Martin, who fought in the French and Indian War, doesn’t want any of his seven children to experience the horrors of war the way he did, and refuses to give his blessing. The son joins up anyway, and very soon the war comes to the Martin plantation in the form of the ruthless British cavalry officer William Tavington and his troops, who kill Benjamin’s second son and burn their home. Reluctantly, Benjamin throws in with the rebels as leader of a band of militia who become very effective in harassing the British. The climax of the film depicts the Battle of Cowpens in January 1781, in which Martin finally gets his revenge against Tavington as the Americans defeat the British army of Lord Cornwallis. The scene that showed Martin riding his horse across the field to join the troops before the battle, proudly flying the infant American flag, caused many an American eye on the plane to tear up. The British appear to be winning the battle when Martin grabs the fallen flag on the field and rallies the men, a moment so thrilling that I almost leaped out of my seat, an emotional reaction that I learned later was quite common among the Americans on board. The British passengers were somewhat less excited. When the movie was over, I joined a line at the rest room and said to the man in front of me, “Boy, that was a helluva movie.” “Yes, quite exciting,” he said, in a British accent.
Gibson returned to the director’s chair again for The Passion of the Christ. Gibson co-wrote the script and also acted as producer and arranged financing for the film, in addition to directing. The actors spoke entirely in languages of the period–Aramaic, Hebrew and Latin—with English subtitles providing translation. The ancient languages gave the film a sense of realism unmatched by any other film of the life of Christ, which up till now had always featured dialogue in English or other modern languages. I saw the movie in Rice Lake with a group from my church in one of the several special showings the theater scheduled to meet the demand. The film became the highest-grossing film of all time to carry an R rating. It made over $600 million worldwide and received three Oscar nominations, but was also heavily criticized by many Jewish groups for its portrayal of the Jewish leadership who delivered Christ to the Romans for crucifixion. It was violent and bloody, but also powerfully impactful and almost stunning in its beauty. It remains one of the greatest movies I’ve ever seen, and I have the DVD, although to this day, nearly 13 years after that experience in the theater, I can’t bring myself to watch it. The emotions I felt at seeing Jesus tortured and crucified were just too raw to experience again.
The bigger they are…
Gibson’s career as an actor, and especially as a director, seemed ascendant. He was favorably compared by the critics to classic movie stars like Cary Grant, and was offered the role of James Bond but turned it down for fear of being typecast. But there were storm clouds on the horizon. He was raised in a conservative Catholic family, whose beliefs he carried into adulthood. The Hollywood crowd, although strident in its belief in diversity, tends to look askance at those among them who embrace Christianity, and after The Passion brought him criticism from the Jewish community and others who simply disliked seeing a Christian-themed film do well, Gibson stated he felt he and his family were being targeted not on the merits of the film but because of his faith.
As often happens, Gibson didn’t help his cause. By 2006, his 26-year marriage to Australian Robyn Moore (which produced seven children) was deteriorating. Gibson was arrested for driving drunk and spouted anti-Semitic accusations at the police. The couple separated the next day, but Moore didn’t file divorce papers until 2009, shortly after photos were published showing Gibson embracing a Russian pianist, Oksana Grigorieva. By the time the divorce was finalized in late 2011 (with Moore walking away with a record settlement of some $400 million), Gibson already had a 2-year-old daughter with Grigorieva and had split up with her amid accusations he had abused her. Audio recordings purported to be of Gibson ranting against Jews were then published online, but their authenticity was later called into question and Gibson had pleaded no contest to a charge of misdemeanor battery. His ex-wife had helped his cause with a public statement that he had never abused her or any of their children.
The split with Grigorieva cause Gibson more than a million dollars in cash and property, and his reputation suffered another hit. He was dropped by his agent and his career seemed to be grinding to a halt. Even though the success of The Passion and Apocalypto was still fresh in everyone’s minds, Gibson was castigated by much of the press and Hollywood for his actions, real and alleged. I always thought that a lot of that was due to his Christian beliefs, which apparently never wavered during all of his troubles. Actors who aren’t known to be religious often go through much messier domestic and legal problems with hardly a bump in their career path.
But by the early years of the next decade, anti-Gibson sentiment seemed to be fading. He garnered public support from some fellow actors and continued working. Then Crosby came calling with Hacksaw Ridge.
A triumphant return.
The film has garnered very positive reviews and was well-received at film festivals, which is always a barometer of how a particular movie will fare with critics, if not the public. A movie that gets standing ovations at Cannes and Sundance can often be counted on for Golden Globe and Oscar consideration, even if it doesn’t do well at the box office. What do those peons buying the tickets really know about movies, anyway?
But as soon as this year’s Academy Award nominations were announced, some people once again came out against Gibson. A handful of liberal critics and actors are now saying that Gibson’s latest work does not deserve recognition because, well, he said some bad things about some people ten years ago. Even though he apologized at the time, that doesn’t count.
Fortunately, not too many people are listening to those fringe voices these days. The Hollywood glitterati discovered on Election Day that, to their horror and disbelief, millions of Americans really don’t care what they say or think. The Academy evidently concluded that Hacksaw Ridge was one of the finest movies of 2016 and that Gibson, among others associated with the film, deserve to be so recognized.
I have not yet seen the movie but intend to when it comes to pay-per-view on my satellite dish in a few weeks. As I do with every movie I see, I will judge it on its merits as a film, not on the real or alleged personal beliefs of the people who made it, in front of or behind the camera. It takes hundreds of people to make a major motion picture, and it’s impossible to know what each and every one of them holds in his or her heart. This isn’t Nazi Germany, where filmmakers had to hew the party line or their work would never see the screen. This is America, and it has been an American tradition that people deserve a second chance. If they produce, they are welcomed back into the fold. None of us are perfect, after all, even if many in Hollywood seem to think they are. And when a person redeems himself, everyone should rejoice with him.
So, here’s hoping Mel Gibson takes the stage on Oscar Night, at least once. It will be a sign not only of a movie’s success, but of a man’s redemption.