Hacksaw Ridge (2016 Summit Entertainment, Pandemonium Films, Permut Productions)
Starring Andrew Garfield, Sam Worthington, Luke Bracey, Teresa Palmer, Hugo Weaving, Rachel Griffiths & Vince Vaughn.
Directed by Mel Gibson.
Producers: Terry Benedict, Paul Currie, Bruce Davey, William D. Johnson, Bill Mechanic, Brian Oliver, David Permut.
Written by Andrew Knight & Robert Schenkkan. Cinematography by Simon Duggan. Edited by John Gilbert.
The extraordinary true story of conscientious objector Desmond T. Doss who saved 75 men in Okinawa, during the bloodiest battle of WWII, without firing a single shot. Believing that the war was just but killing was nevertheless wrong, he was the only American soldier in WWII to fight on the front lines without a weapon. As an army medic Doss single-handedly evacuated the wounded near enemy lines – braving enemy fire and putting his own life on the line. He was the first conscientious objector to ever win the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Oliver Stone’s 1986 film, Platoon, revolutionized the genre of war films. The stories got more intense, the battle scenes were more realistic and the lines between heroes and villains became blurred. Then along comes Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan in 1998 to reclaim some of the space from Platoon; at least in the sense of un-blurring the hero/villain line (but even then, ethical questions abound).
Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge is truly a new masterpiece in every way. He succeeds where so many before him have failed in a modern story about wartime love and combat (Michael Bay’s crapfest, Pearl Harbor, comes to mind). Hacksaw Ridge succeeds because it never tries to check the compulsory boxes to be a “Hollywood” movie. Instead of trying to be a love story/action flick/buddy pic, Gibson keeps the story on its protagonist: Desmond Doss. Everything that happens throughout Hacksaw Ridge jumps off from him. From the early years growing up with an abusive father, to falling in love, to challenging the U.S. Army, to serving in combat (without a weapon).
Andrew Garfield’s gives a solid performance as Doss. He’s a skinny, unassuming pacifist whose unwavering dedication to his faith can’t be broken. It’s shaken at times, but Doss never breaks. Where Garfield shines in Hacksaw Ridge is portraying Doss not as a superhero (which Garfield knows how to do well), but as a vulnerable but dedicated soldier. You see his fear as well as his bravery. And through it all, Doss gains the trust, admiration and respect of his fellow soldiers.
If there’s one flaw in the film, it’s a minor one (and maybe it’s me). I enjoyed the entire cast. Every actor played his or her part very well. But I have to admit it was hard to take Vince Vaughn seriously as a hard-assed drill sergeant. I like Vince Vaughn and have seen him take on serious roles in the past. But it’s difficult to watch Vaughn go through the obligatory steps of verbally assaulting his recruits without thinking about his monologues in movies like The Wedding Crashers, The Break-up, Couples Retreat, etc. But I’ll give him a pass. Overall, Vaughn held his own.
One under-appreciated performance that I’d like to call out is Hugo Weaving as Desmond’s father, the drunken, abusive Tom Doss. Initially, we see the elder Doss as a villain, but Weaving’s portrayal gives depth and clarity to Tom Doss’s pain and, in the end, he gains a small measure of sympathy. He’s not a hateful man. He’s a man who’s seen the horrors of war and doesn’t want his sons to suffer the same fate.
Gibson never loses the narrative throughout Hacksaw Ridge. He moves the story effortlessly from Desmond’s youth and young adulthood in Virginia to boot camp to combat in Okinawa. Yeah, Mel was in the doghouse for several years over his drunken anti-semitic and racist rants, but it’s good to see him finally earn some redemption. There are no excuses for that behavior, but he’s worked to atone for those sins and I, for one, am glad to see him receive accolade for Hacksaw Ridge. He and this film truly deserve it.
**** stars (out of five)