This year’s Oscar nominations are all about diversity, with nonwhite talent not only prominent in the acting slots but contending for behind-the-camera awards from directing to cinematography. So why shouldn’t the Academy demonstrate true inclusivity by tossing a bouquet to the biz’s most notorious Jew-baiter in the bargain? Mel Gibson is unlikely to win best director for Hacksaw Ridge; Damien Chazelle (La La Land) and Barry Jenkins (Moonlight) are the early favorites. But in his case, it’s an end to dishonor just to be nominated.
Gibson’s old-school “They killed Our Lord” anti-Semitism was on ample display in 2004’s The Passion of The Christ—at least to anybody with eyes and half a brain. But Hollywood was mostly willing to STFU about that because Passion made $600 million worldwide and numbers like that can unnerve the crap out of people. Then Mel got pulled over for drunk driving two years later and went off on an anti-Semitic tirade to the arresting officer: “"Fucking Jews… the Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world. Are you a Jew?” As it happened, the cop was.
That did it. In the decade since, Gibson has gone on working sporadically as an actor—including a would-be lovable comeback in the 2011 flop The Beaver, directed by old pal and defender Jodie Foster. But even if he wasn’t a total pariah in the industry, he certainly wasn’t anybody’s idea of an attraction. He triggered widespread disbelief by announcing plans to make a movie about Jewish rebel Judah Maccabee, presumably his idea of an apology. But he fell out with scriptwriter Joe Ezterhas, who pointed out the obvious problem—“You hate Jews”—and Warner Brothers shelved the project. As a result, Hacksaw Ridge is the first movie he’s directed since 2006’s Apocalypto, which hit theaters only months after his DUI.
Starring Andrew Garfield as real-life World War II conscientious objector Desmond Doss, who won a Medal of Honor for his heroism as a medic during the battle of Okinawa, Hacksaw Ridge is undeniably a pretty damn good movie. Even more undeniably, it’s an awfully well-directed one; whatever else you think of him, Gibson is an exasperatingly talented filmmaker. It’s no surprise he handles the gory Okinawa climax well; cramming the screen with savagery has been his specialty ever since 1995’s Braveheart. But he does uncommonly fine work in the civilian sequences with Garfield, drop-dead-gorgeous Teresa Palmer (as Doss’s sweetie) and surly Hugo Weaving (as his dad). One nice touch is how he subtly evokes the 1940s by getting his actors to blend modern-day realism with 1940s acting styles.
Make no mistake, though. Like Braveheart and—ahem—The Passion of The Christ, Hacksaw Ridge is really all about Mel: his appetite for mashing up faith and violence, his obsession with martyrdom. It can’t be a total coincidence that this is the story of someone ostracized and punished for his weird-ass religious beliefs who ends up silencing the mockers by showing off his brave heart, now can it? Like the heroes of Gibson’s previous movies, Garfield’s Doss is someone in no need of redemption—just vindication, once everybody else realizes that a) they’ve misjudged what he’s all about and b) how much they need him. He even proves he’s no bigot by selflessly rescuing Japanese wounded, not just American ones.
“I’ve never been more wrong about somebody in my life,” Doss’s company commander (Sam Worthington) tells him near the end. Presumably, Gibson would like nothing better than to hear the same from his industry peers, and his best director nod pretty much says just that. Hollywood loves opportunities to forgive its prodigals, and it generally works best when the occasion can stay fuzzy about precisely what it is they’re being forgiven for. That obviously wouldn’t be the case if Gibson had gotten to film the story of Judah Maccabee.
So now everybody’s happy, but it’s just as well he probably won’t end up collecting another Academy Award on February 26. After all, “Oscar” really is a suspiciously Jewish-sounding name, and God only knows what sort of appalling stuff Mel yells in private at the two he’s gotten already.