From the very start, Mel Gibson knew he was courting danger when he decided to make his $25 million passion project, ''The Passion of the Christ,'' which opens Feb. 25 -- Ash Wednesday -- on 2,000 screens nationwide. A violent, self-funded chronicle of Christ's final hours, literally if selectively adapted from New Testament sources, and augmented with material from extra-biblical writings long accused of containing anti-Semitic content -- really, how difficult could it have been for Gibson to see trouble on the horizon? EW was denied a screening of the film, as well as interviews with Gibson, James Caviezel (the movie's Jesus), and the rest of the ''Passion'' team. But according to over two dozen industry executives and others who have seen the movie or are close to Gibson, ''The Passion'' is deeply polarizing. And the question that will haunt Gibson long after the furor over the film is this: Did it really need to be?
In Hollywood, cautious deliberations have begun. Many who think favorably of both film and filmmaker were willing to go on the record; detractors preferred anonymity, particularly those who might have to work with Gibson again. ''I think it's a masterpiece,'' raves Dean Devlin, who produced Gibson's ''The Patriot.'' ''I am going to try very hard never to work with him again,'' says one studio executive. ''If the film is anti-Semitic, I guarantee you it's inadvertent,'' says Gibson's six-time director Richard Donner. ''He has driven his career right to the edge of a cliff,'' says another studio executive. ''One more false move, it goes right over.''
Amazing: With a single film, a Hollywood icon teeters on the brink. How this thriller resolves itself hinges on a complicated set of interlocking questions: Will the film be a hit? Will it be offensive? And if it's seen as offensive, what if it's a hit anyway? Gibson is in a heck of a jam -- but don't underestimate his ability to wriggle free and endure. The 48-year-old was once again named America's favorite movie actor by the People's Choice Awards in January. By instinct, calculation, or both, he has proven remarkably adept at shaping and reshaping how the public perceives him. With ''The Passion of the Christ,'' that skill is about to undergo its fiercest test.