It’s been 10 years since Mel Gibson, the Oscar-winning helmer of Braveheart, directed a film. And boy, quite a lot’s happened since then.
In the lead-up to the release of 2006’s Apocalypto, a thrilling Mesoamerican drama about a tribesman shielding his family from Mayan warlords and conquistadors, the actor was pulled over for drunk driving in Malibu where, according to the police report, he asked if the arresting officer was Jewish, and remarked: “Fucking Jews. The Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world.” Then, he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor battery charge after assaulting his then-girlfriend, Oksana Grigorieva (she reportedly claimed he struck her twice in the face, shattering her teeth). During the subsequent custody battle over their daughter, secretly-recorded audio tapes of Gibson threatening Grigorieva with nasty racial epithets hit the internet—specifically, that if she was “raped by a pack of n*ggers” the blame would fall on her.
Gibson wrote a letter of apology to the ADL and later addressed the controversial comments in a 2014 interview with The Hollywood Reporter, saying, “It’s behind me; it’s an 8-year-old story. It keeps coming up like a rerun, but I’ve dealt with it and I’ve dealt with it responsibly and I’ve worked on myself for anything I am culpable for. All the necessary mea culpas have been made copious times, so for this question to keep coming up, it’s kind of like... I’m sorry they feel that way, but I’ve done what I need to do.”It’s been a decade since 60-year-old Gibson’s last hit—that being the aforementioned Apocalypto, though his recent action flick Blood Father was surprisingly strong—and now, the actor-filmmaker is hoping to escape from movie jail with the WWII epic Hacksaw Ridge. Making its premiere at the Venice Film Festival, the film tells the true story of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), a Seventh-day Adventist and conscientious objector turned Army medic who, despite his rail-thin physique and refusal to carry a weapon, saves 75 of his fellow troops during the Battle of Okinawa.
“To me, to take an ordinary man and have an ordinary man do extraordinary things in incredibly difficult circumstances, I think, is the making of legendary storytelling,” Gibson said during the film’s press conference in Venice. “His struggle is singular: He’s a man in the worst situation possible, in the midst of hell on Earth, and he goes into that struggle armed with nothing more than faith and conviction… and he does something extraordinary, even supernatural. That inspired me.”
The soft-spoken Doss is subject to a string of abuses by his fellow troops and superiors (played by Vince Vaughn and Sam Worthington) during basic training due to his anti-gun stance—in short: they brutally haze him like Full Metal Jacket’s Gomer Pyle. But unlike Pvt. Pyle, Doss turns the other cheek. Though the “Christ figure” has long been a staple of Gibson’s oeuvre, from his torture sequence in Lethal Weapon to his torture sequence in Braveheart to, well, The Passion of the Christ, it’s hard not to view Doss as Gibson’s surrogate for himself: an embattled man of faith who endures countless hardships and ultimately emerges the hero.
“It’s undeniable what the essence of Desmond Doss was: He was a man of great courage, and strong conviction, and strong faith,” said Gibson. “To go into a battle zone like that… armed with only your faith, your faith has to be strong indeed. That’s an undeniable part of the story that I find really inspiring—he just conquers everything.”
While the film itself is a far cry from a Braveheart or Apocalypto, weighed down by a never-ending barrage of war-movie clichés—at one point, that scene from Tropic Thunder of Robert Downey Jr. sobbing into Ben Stiller’s bloody stumps actually happens; in another, Vince Vaughn tells a fellow soldier they’re “not in Kansas anymore” as they climb into battle—Garfield imbues the film with his trademark pathos, and some of the battle sequences impress. It remains to be seen, however, if audiences are ready to warm to Gibson and forgive him for his past sins.
At one point during the Venice press conference, which did not address any of the filmmaker’s prior controversies, an Italian journalist asked Gibson to sum up how to achieve career longevity in Hollywood in a single word.
“One word… it’s the same word everybody uses in relationship to Hollywood,” he replied. “The one word is: survival.”