Theology + Movies

Ad hoc reflections on cinematic depth

Tag: God

Hacksaw Ridge (dir. Mel Gibson, 2016)

Hacksaw Ridge may be a number of things — the most violent war film in cinematic history, an allegory of the importance of religious freedom over against state encroachment, a vehicle intended to rehabilitate the image of much-maligned director, Mel Gibson. Yet, despite such complex possibilities, the film is most effective when simply taken as a chronicle of Private Desmond Doss and his service at the Battle of Okinawa (1945). I was not familiar with Doss prior to seeing the film, but, after viewing Hacksaw Ridge, his status as a compelling and even heroic figure is beyond doubt.

After a brief prelude, which foreshadows the violence to come, Hacksaw Ridge opens with Doss’ childhood in rural Virginia. There are intimations of Edenic bliss in these first scenes, but Gibson does not linger on them. As it turns out, Doss’ father (Hugo Weaving, in a fervid role) was an abusive alcoholic, scarred by the psycho-spiritual trauma of World War I. Consequently, the Doss home is a tense place, where young Desmond and the rest of the family often cower in fear. Attentive to his own shortcomings, Doss comes to emulate his pious mother, realizing that anger and violence run contrary to his Christian background. Now a young man (and played with winsome innocence by Andrew Garfield), Doss falls in love with a local nurse (Teresa Palmer) and hopes to start a family. But World War II intervenes, and he feels called to join the military — not as a combatant but as a medic. Indeed, Doss is adamant that he can serve his country without firing a weapon, but, upon arriving at boot camp in South Carolina, it becomes clear that the Army sees it otherwise. Ridiculed by his fellow recruits and commanding officers, Doss is nearly court-martialed for insubordination. Yet, he remains true to his convictions and, after a surprising plot twist, is allowed to accompany his unit to Okinawa. “Private Doss,” an army official sternly warns, “you are free to run into the hellfire of battle without a single weapon to protect yourself.”

It is at this point that Hacksaw Ridge erupts into a violence so grisly that even the most ardent devotee of Game of Thrones will cringe. Indeed, it’s fair to wonder if Gibson — whose The Passion of the Christ (2004) seemed to confirm a possibly unhealthy concern for bloody imagery — goes too far in his depiction of the Battle of Okinawa. Not only does Hacksaw Ridge show the shootings and stabbings typical of the genre, but Gibson is intent on portraying Okinawa as a campaign sui generis: there are severed heads, rotting bodies, halved corpses, and flesh-eating rats. It is, in short, a nightmarish vision, which is frankly difficult to watch. Be that as it may, Gibson does seem to have been true to the historical subject matter. Consider the words of Private Eugene Sledge — an Okinawa veteran, whose experience has since been chronicled the HBO series, The Pacific (2010):

“[Okinawa was] the most ghastly corner of hell I had ever witnessed….Every crater was half full of water, and many of them held a Marine corpse. The bodies lay pathetically just as they had been killed, half submerged in muck and water, rusting weapons still in hand. Swarms of big flies hovered about them. [I] saw maggots and decay. Men struggled and fought and bled in an environment so degrading I believed we had been flung into hell’s own cesspool.”

Thus the gore of Hacksaw Ridge is hardly gratuitous, even if it is disturbing. Moreover — and presumably this was Gibson’s underlying purpose — it serves to cast Doss’ efforts in the sharpest possible relief. Bearing only a small Bible and a handful of medical supplies, Doss repeatedly runs into battle unarmed, even remaining atop Hacksaw Ridge (or the Maeda Escarpment) when his fellow troops had retreated. He ultimately saves 75 wounded soldiers, including a number of Japanese men — an outcome, he was certain, that was only possible in and through the grace of God:

Still, one might ask: why make a film about Doss now? What does Gibson have up his sleeve? As mentioned at the outset, various answers have been tendered in response to such questions. To be sure, Hacksaw Ridge has quickly (and stunningly) bettered Gibson’s reputation in Hollywood, and the film undoubtedly makes a plea for the tolerance of religious convictions — a plea that is deftly handled, insofar Doss’ Christian pacifism is shown to cooperate with the objectives of the state, rather than to flout them.

And yet, it’s hard not to wonder: would this film be received in the same way if Doss were, say, a champion of school prayer or of any issue that runs counter to contemporary politics? Moreover, while Hacksaw Ridge demonstrates that certain religious “beliefs” might be worth tolerating in a secular democracy, it does not get around to weighing the truthfulness of such beliefs. In other words, is Doss’ nonviolence an idiosyncratic yet charming way of looking at reality? Or is it, in fact, the true way to live? That Gibson avoids the latter question manifests the Americanism implicit in Hacksaw Ridge: for him, what matters is that Doss is “accepted” or “tolerated,” not whether or not he is right. His “belief” is a private one, and he fights both for his right to serve according to his convictions and for a nation that putatively supports this right. The contents of, and the rationale for, his faith are little more than suggested.

Of course, that by no means diminishes Doss’ heroism in battle, and I’m grateful that, through Gibson’s film, I’ve come to know his remarkable story. Nevertheless, to call Hacksaw Ridge a “Christian movie” seems to be a misnomer. In truth, it is a film about permitting Christian devotion, with a nod to the potential benefits of doing so.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (dir. Zack Snyder, 2016)

Batman v Superman is an intriguing premise in need of a better movie. For most of its 151 minute running time — a running time that, trimmed of excess explosions and frivolous plot excursions, should’ve been closer to 100 minutes — it produces more sardonic laughs than genuine thrills. My favorite: late in the film, Lex Luthor (a manic Jesse Eisenberg) unleashes a gigantic monster on the city of Metropolis. Known as Doomsday, it is a mutant fusion of the body of Superman’s former nemesis, General Zod, and Luthor’s own DNA. Needless to say, it ain’t pretty:

Apart from apparently hitting the weights — no CrossFit for this thing, just straight iron — Doomsday is also surprisingly nimble. It bounds up buildings in the manner of King Kong, and, to make matters worse, it absorbs whatever energy is fired at it, including nuclear warheads. One might quibble that the creature’s look is too derivative (it could be the love child of the Incredible Hulk and one of the Uruk-hai from The Lord of the Rings), but this is not a monster you’d ever want to see in your city. Thus I audibly laughed when a stoic news anchor, covering Doomsday’s destruction of the Metropolitan skyline, comments that at least it didn’t happen during rush hour!

Such unintentional laughs are not uncommon in Batman v Superman, but they hardly exhaust the film’s problems. Again, the plot is horribly convoluted: in addition to genetically-engineered monsters, there are Russian arms dealers, African warlords, Senate hearings, the wreckage of alien spaceships, father-son issues, and even a love-scene in a bathtub. And yet, all of this is but window-dressing for the essential plot concern, which seems to make more sense in the abstract than in the film itself: Batman (Ben Affleck) has come to distrust Superman (Henry Cavill), because he recognizes that Superman bears power that, wielded improperly, could destroy humanity. Thus he aims to kill Superman by way of kryptonite-flecked weaponry — a plan that Luthor himself facilitates, believing that his path to world-domination would be cleared if Superman were out of the way. But Luthor’s scheme is ultimately exposed, and, in an epiphanic moment, Batman and Superman realize they must work together if Luthor (and his pet demon) are to be stopped. I won’t spoil the ending, but suffice it to say that Doomsday lives up to its name, even as director Zack Snyder ensures that a sequel remains in the offing.

To be sure, no one is going to confuse this narrative arc with, say, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). But there is potential for depth here. Snyder has set up a classic allegory, which owes more than a little to the Christian tradition. Superman, of course, represents the divine, whose otherness is experienced by human beings as both a source of hope and fear. Batman seizes on this latter aspect, thereby intimating a distinction emphasized in medieval theology (William of Ockham, especially) and later in the thought of Reformers such as Martin Luther and John Calvin — namely, that the divine will is not “limited” by the good but, rather, is radically contingent and self-determining. What God did yesterday, so to speak, has no bearing on what God may do today; God can do as he pleases. Such a perspective seems to safeguard divine freedom, but there is a cost: faith in God becomes a matter of blind trust and, consequently, rationally indefensible. True, some may cower before the divine will, but others will perceive it as a threat that demands neutralization. The latter is effectively Batman’s position, which he doesn’t renounce until he realizes that Superman’s will is, indeed, conditioned by the good — that is, by the fact that Superman’s love for his earthly parents reveals his essential humility and benevolence. In turn, Superman and Batman are not only mutually sympathetic but can now unite with one another in order to conquer evil and death. Thus the immanent virtues inculcated by Batman (justice, fortitude, devotion) are analogous to and perfected by the transcendent attributes of Superman, who, in the film’s denouement, demonstrates the very depths of love’s sacrificial character.

Such, at any rate, is how one might try to read Batman v Superman theologically, and, seen in these terms,  it suddenly looks like an attempt to cinematically manifest certain key elements of the Christian message. Of course, I’m hardly the first person to make this connection, and it’s worth adding that Batman v Superman‘s predecessor, Man of Steel (2013), was directly pitched to Christian audiences. Now, in and of itself, this is not necessarily a bad thing, and I appreciate Snyder’s desire to explore the ostensive conflict between immanence and transcendence and how it might be overcome through divine self-giving. There’s only one problem: Batman v Superman is just not a very good movie. Instead of letting the story speak for itself, Snyder overwhelms it in a barrage of explosions, CGI effects, and schmaltzy dramatics. Batman v Superman may be a film about faith, but, in the end, it is defined by a lack thereof.

Philomena (dir. Stephen Frears, 2013)

The ninth “deliberation” in Søren Kierkegaard’s Works of Love (1847) is called “The Work of Love in Remembering One Dead.” Though it has been accused of suggesting that loving the dead is preferable to loving the living, Kierkegaard’s argument is actually far different. As he sees it, one of the pitfalls of human relationships is that, even when they flourish, there is a quid pro quo involved. It is not so, however, when one loves the dead, for to love the dead is precisely to love one who can give nothing in return. Hence, for Kierkegaard, the practice of loving the dead is a kind of “training” for loving the living. It teaches one to seek love even when it is not (palpably) returned, to allow oneself to be oriented by love even in the face of grim reality. In this way, the loving one comes to reflect the love of God.

Stephen Frears’ Philomena might be seen as a meditation on Kierkegaard’s insight. Inspired by a true story — albeit with a few key deviations — it tells of Philomena Lee (Judi Dench, in a poignantly understated performance), an Irish woman who longs to be reunited with the son she gave up for adoption almost fifty years before. But there are significant obstacles. Philomena’s son was conceived out of wedlock, and, as punishment, she was sent to work at Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea, Ireland. In turn, the abbey’s nuns legally assumed control over her affairs, including her baby. So, when they approved the child’s adoption by an American family, Philomena was not only powerless to prevent it but even excluded from any knowledge of his whereabouts. It was, in any legal or political sense, as if she had never known him.

And yet, one of the presuppositions of Philomena is that love cannot be reduced to the juridical or to the political. Love has the unique quality of being limitless, uncorrupted by worldly realities or the ravages of time. Hence, when journalist Martin Sixsmith (a mordantly amusing Steven Coogan) agrees to help Philomena find her son, she jumps at the opportunity. Philomena and Sixsmith are the proverbial odd couple, and Frears mines their relationship for both humor and perspective. Philomena (despite everything) is a devout Catholic, while Sixsmith is an atheist, who cannot reconcile faith in God with the atrocities of the news cycle. Ultimately, the validity of their respective worldviews is tried in the extreme. Following a number of leads, they learn that Philomena’s son, after a successful career, died of AIDS and requested to be buried in Ireland — indeed, at the very abbey in which he was born. Sixsmith is livid. The nuns had told Philomena that they knew nothing of her son’s fate. Thus the pair travel back to Roscrea, where a climactic confrontation takes place.

Indeed, it is here that the film’s theme crystallizes. Frears depicts two opposed institutions — that of a church seeking to protect its interests and of a press hostile to everything but a marketable story. Philomena refuses to join either side. She is angry with the sisters of Sean Ross Abbey, even as she wants nothing to do with Sixsmith’s cynicism. To be a Christian, she understands, is about love. And it is the love that she has for her son — a love that is its own gift, for it asks nothing of the other — that now teaches her to forgive.

As is well-known, many have objected to this denouement, noting its historical inaccuracies and (potentially) anti-Catholic undertones. Granted, the portrayal of one Sr. Hildegarde (Barbara Jefford) is, in effect, pabulum, pandering to the crudest stereotypes of Catholic nuns. And yet, Philomena does not dwell on this point. As the film comes to a close, Philomena visits the grave of her son. A chastened Sixsmith joins her there, and he presents her with a small figure of the Most Sacred Hart of Jesus. The aging woman places it on her son’s gravestone — a symbol of the love in which she shares and still finds hope.

Crimes and Misdemeanors (dir. Woody Allen, 1989)

This blog is intended to focus on movies I see for the first time. Admittedly, it’s something of an arbitrary measure, but I’ve found it helpful in disciplining my writing. After all, if I opened the door to every film I’ve seen, the project would seem far more unmanageable. I wouldn’t even know where to begin, or how to go about deciding which films merit inclusion and which don’t. With that said, I’m going to make an exception this time. Next week I’m going to be at the 2014 Baylor University Symposium on Faith and Culture, whose main theme is “Faith and Film.” In particular, I will be speaking about the Woody Allen film, Crimes and Misdemeanors, and so I wanted to touch on it here, despite the fact that I’ve seen it before and have long considered it the pièce de résistance of Allen’s catalog.

Crimes and Misdemeanors bears two distinct plot lines, but it arrives at a single metaphysical conclusion: in the face of an ethically indifferent universe, lawlessness and cunning do pay, whether in matters big (“crimes”) or small (“misdemeanors”). It is, doubtless, a bleak conclusion, but Allen tempers it with his usual combination of style and wit. Moreover, in a manner reminiscent of Ivan Karamazov in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, he does not so much celebrate nihilism as lament it. The film consistently invokes the possibility of a divine moral order, grounding it in the human desire to find meaning amid suffering, even as it doubts the veracity of such a vision.

The central character of Crimes and Misdemeanors is Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau) — a prosperous ophthalmologist, whose bourgeois family life and charitable reputation are put in jeopardy when he has an affair with Dolores Paley (Anjelica Huston), an area flight attendant. Desperate and unhinged, Dolores sends revealing letters to Judah’s house and calls at odd hours. She will only stop, she says, if he leaves his wife. Judah consults two persons about the problem. The first is Ben (Sam Waterston), one of his patients, who also happens to be a rabbi. Though he is slowly going blind — indeed, the tension between sight and blindness characterizes the film — Ben views life’s struggles as an opportunity to improve one’s moral character. Thus he counsels Judah to confess the matter to his wife and to seek forgiveness; it will be hard in the near term, he admits, but ultimately it will lead to a better marriage and to significant personal growth. Distrustful of this approach, Judah then confers with his brother Jack (Jerry Orbach), a hard-bitten “man-of-the-world,” who suggests that Judah have Dolores killed. Judah is initially repulsed, but, when Dolores refuses to back down, he comes to agree with Jack — a decision that not only results in Dolores’ murder, but also forces Judah to confront the Pentateuchal teachings impressed upon him as a child.

In a more ironical vein, the film also follows Clifford Stern (Woody Allen) — an ambitious yet largely unsuccessful filmmaker, who is tasked with making a documentary about his smug brother-in-law, Lester (Alan Alda). Lester is everything that Cliff isn’t: he’s had great success as a television writer and producer, and he handles banquets, bedrooms, and board rooms with equal aplomb. For Cliff, then, the documentary is a lesson in humiliation, made tolerable only by Lester’s smart assistant, Halley (Mia Farrow). Halley seems to share Cliff’s more avant garde leanings, and they bond over the possibility of a future project on an eminent philosopher. Though married, Cliff begins to think of Halley as his soulmate. But she soon takes a job in London, and upon returning, she announces her engagement to Lester. Cliff, naturally, is devastated. Why is it that a self-important, spurious person such as Lester always seems to come out on top? And how could Halley not see who Lester really is?

To be sure, in Crimes and Misdemeanors, no one sees anything very clearly. Lester sees himself as a cutting-edge auteur, but, in truth, he is an astute but predictable entrepreneur. Cliff, too, sees himself as a great artist, but he lacks the acumen and dedication to actually finish a project. Judah sees himself as a decent person confronted with an “unfortunate” situation, but he is also an adulterer and a cold-blooded murderer. Even God, Allen suggests, seems to be blind, as the world’s injustices unfold before him, and he (apparently) does nothing. In the face of such blindness — or, at least, of such confusion — the best one can do is pick a Weltanschauung and live by it. Thus a person like Ben chooses to live by Torah and finds happiness in doing so. In contrast, Judah decides to reject the law, even admitting, in the film’s culminant scene, that he no longer feels guilty for Dolores’ murder. He did what he had to do to get by; he is just like everyone else, except wealthier. That is his reality.

For Allen, this relativity seems to be the bottom-line in human life, but it comes with a Darwinian corollary: it is the strongest, the most ruthless, who thrive in these conditions. Furthermore, those who adhere to religious law are living for something that has no purchase in day-to-day life; their morals are unhelpful at best, meaningless at worst. Allen summed up his perspective well in a 2010 interview: “I have a very grim, pessimistic view of [life]. I always have, since I was a little boy. It hasn’t gotten worse with age or anything. I do feel that it’s a grim, painful, nightmarish, meaningless experience, and that the only way that you can be happy is if you tell yourself some lies and deceive yourself.”

Clearly, then, neither Allen nor his films subscribe to a Christian understanding of creation and fall. What’s odd, however, is that glimmers of Christian (or Judeo-Christian) insight do sparkle in Allen’s films. In Crimes and Misdemeanors, for example, Ben emerges as the character with the most integrity and, in turn, familial happiness. The only person resembling him is, ironically enough, Judah’s father, whom we meet in a flashback. In the midst of a Seder, a debate breaks out: was Hitler punished for the Holocaust? Following Tanakh, Judah’s father asserts that, one way or another, wickedness never goes unpunished. When a relative disagrees, arguing that “might makes right” in the world, Judah’s father not only reiterates his belief but adds a crucial codicil: even if his faith is not “true” according to common standards, he’d still rather believe in God, for such belief is necessary for a life of purpose and happiness.

Of course, Judah eventually departs from his father’s perspective, but that does not mean that his father is wrong. Indeed, it’s curious that Allen never explores the other side of the film’s anthropology. It’s plain that, in his view, human beings want to believe in a moral order, though, in light of corruption and evil, this belief is misguided. And yet, one might reach just the opposite conclusion: given the predominant human desire for happiness, as well as the fact that the majority of human beings ascribe happiness to religious faith, perhaps the universe is not so indifferent after all. Perhaps our moral concerns, despite their ostensible feebleness, gesture toward a larger truth that will ultimately render our crimes and misdemeanors impotent?

Godzilla (dir. Gareth Edwards, 2014)

Ishirō Honda’s 1954 film, Godzilla (ゴジラ), appeared in the wake of the horrific nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki — events in which over 100,000 persons were killed instantly, while tens of thousands more died later due to radiation poisoning and other bomb-related injuries. Against this backdrop, Honda’s film was issued as a kind of warning. Godzilla was a daikaiju (大怪獣), a “giant strange creature” released from the bowels of the sea by nuclear testing. Wreaking havoc on Tokyo and its environs, the monster is finally destroyed by scientists, who, at film’s end, come to confront the peril of modern technology. Its power, too, must be subdued, lest other daikaiju also appear.

The social and political concern of the original Godzilla stands in stark contrast to the latest incarnation of the franchiseHelmed by the English director, Gareth Edwards, the new Godzilla takes a more intimate approach. Its protagonist is Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a San Francisco-based explosives expert who longs for nothing more than a little R&R with his fetching wife, Elle (Elizabeth Olsen), and cute-as-a-button little boy, Sam (Carson Bolde). Yet, when his father, Joe (a manic Bryan Cranston), is arrested in Tokyo, Ford is forced to head overseas and, hopefully, to resolve the situation. Of course, it’s hardly that simple. A decade and a half earlier, a Japanese nuclear power plant exploded in a freak accident. Joe had been its supervisor, and he lost his wife (and Ford’s mother) in the disaster. Joe remains convinced that the tragedy’s cause did not lie with normal seismic activity but, rather, with some unknown phenomenon. Thus he continues to research the site of the accident and, in the process, to run afoul of the authorities.

Arriving in Tokyo, Ford sympathizes with his father, but wants him to be reasonable: why, after all these years, can’t the old man just let it go? But Joe is incorrigible, and soon father and son find themselves back in the quarantine zone. What they discover there is astonishing: the site is no longer radioactive, and scientists are monitoring the activity of an enormous creature, a so-called Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism (MUTO). The MUTO, a gigantic, winged, spider-like monster, whose face vaguely recalls the Predator, soon escapes from confinement and heads out across the Pacific Ocean. Its task, as we eventually learn, is to mate with a companion MUTO, which has emerged from the Nevada desert. This puts it on a direct path for — you guessed it! — San Francisco.

Now, at this point, one might well be wondering: isn’t this movie about Godzilla? And the answer is: sort of. In truth, the narrative thrust of the film belongs to Ford, who, after Joe is killed by the MUTO, desperately tries to make it back to San Francisco, where he can protect his family and, with the help of his military confreres, save the city and the rest of humanity. Yet, as the plot unfolds, and as the MUTO’s rampaging continues, it becomes clear that human beings will not be able to resist the MUTO. As the chief scientist notes, “The arrogance of men is thinking nature is in their control and not the other way around.” Only another beast, then, can stop the MUTO, and that beast is — you guessed it again! — Godzilla.

Needless to say, when Godzilla finally shows up, fighting ensues, skyscrapers topple, and people run around screaming. Edwards manages the spectacle with considerable skill, but one can’t help but wonder: what’s the point? The MUTO and Godzilla are essentially blind forces; they hardly pay any mind to the human beings around them. Moreover, just why Godzilla wants to liquidate the MUTO is equally baffling. Apparently, it’s all part of nature’s “power to restore balance,” but aren’t Godzilla and MUTO unnatural monsters, created by the nuclear energy fabricated by humans? Whatever. It really doesn’t matter, as the real goal of the film is to show stuff blowing up and, at last, to give us a shot of Ford embracing his wife and son.

In the end, then, the interesting question is: why is this Godzilla so different than its celebrated forerunner? In other words, why is the politically-conscious message of the original Godzilla seemingly no longer of interest? A number of possibilities come to mind. The obvious answer is that, well over twenty years since the end of the Cold War, we no longer fear nuclear armageddon as we once did. Indeed, in the 2014 version of Godzilla, the dangers of atomic energy as such are largely ignored, apart from the fact that the MUTO likes to snack on nuclear warheads. Another possibility is that, in the era of smart phones and iPads, we are far more comfortable with technology than we used to be. The dire warnings of the first Godzilla seem strained, outdated.

At the same time, however, the absence of a socio-political critique should not imply that, in 2014, all is well. Although the film does not show much gore, people do die by the thousands. Moreover, these people are rarely active participants in the action. On the contrary, they are innocent bystanders, “collateral damage” in the fight between agencies that are both unknowing and unknowable. Is it possible, then, that Edwards’ Godzilla is more bleak than Honda’s? The latter suggests human responsibility for the world’s ills and the ethical imperative to change; the former maintains that, in the face of cosmic pandemonium, the best we can do is hope to avoid destruction at the hands of an indifferent material universe. Tend to your family, Edwards implies, for calamity may strike at any time, and it does not discriminate between victims.

Of course, there is some truth to this perspective. It serves to check human hubris and, perhaps, reminds us to appreciate the present moment — the smile of a loved one, the kindness of a stranger. But can it sustain the human spirit? Is the specter of a brutally disinterested cosmos enough to foster faith, hope, and love, not just in God, but in the very dignity of earthly life? Intriguingly, in one flitting scene, Edwards seems to suggest that the answer to these questions is no. As Ford and his fellow soldiers prepare to confront the MUTO, one of them opens a Bible and begins to pray. It is a prayer for God’s support in the field of battle, but it’s more than that: it’s a prayer that God might exist at all, that there might be some purpose in the purposeless surrounding them.