The sheer number of stories bred by something as world changing as a war is staggering. I consider myself something of a World War II history buff, logging more hours then I care to admit plopped down in front of the history channel (when it’s not showing a cheap reality show), yet I keep finding stories that are completely new to me, major stories that merit the cinematic treatment. Hacksaw Ridge stars Andrew Garfield as Desmond Doss, an army medic who enlisted as a conscientious objector, wanting to do his part by saving lives and not taking them. Doss’s bravery is highlighted not just on the battlefield but on the homefront before touching foot on foreign soil. Doss, due to both his belief system (he was a seventh day adventist) and a childhood trauma, is not just a conscientious objector but also refuses to even hold a weapon. The men in his unit view this as a severe liability so it’s not long until this stance leads to circumstances that land him in a court martial hearing. His right to serve upheld Doss is shipped out with his unit to fight the Japanese in the Pacific theater at Okinawa. In the thick of the fighting the GI’s are pushed back and forced to retreat down hacksaw ridge, a 100 foot cliff face, leaving Doss alone with countless wounded soldiers and the advancing Japanese army.
Almost every war film is, at it’s core, is about a soldier or group of soldiers who have to overcome insurmountable odds to survive by killing their way to safety. Why then did it take so long for this unique and unbelievably inspiring story to make its way to the big screen? Well, it wasn’t for lack of trying. For decades’ countless producers and even Audie Murphy, the most decorated soldier of World War II (the character of Frederick Zoller in Inglourious Basterds is a Nazi version of Murphy), have been trying to get the film made, running into one issue after another. Finally, the stars aligned when producer Bill Mechanic was able to finally persuade Mel Gibson to take on directing duties. The result is just short of amazing. Gibson, for all of his flaws, is one hell of a director. While you could shoehorn him into a talent for filming violence his touch extends well beyond the battle scenes. The film really exists in two parts, Doss’s fight on US soil to be allowed to serve in his way and Doss’s fight on the battlefield to save the lives of the men under his care. Gibson perfectly captures the atmosphere around Doss in basic training as he weather’s both physical and mental beatings from his fellow soldiers as they try to push him out. Gibson’s able to make his time in basic training appear as the largest test of self for Doss and that makes all of the difference in the world. The film illustrates the iron clad integrity possessed by Doss and mental bravery that was required to face down his commanding officers to do what he thought was right. This section of the story could have been easily glossed over in favor of more battlefield screen time but to do so would have been a disservice to the man and his story. That being said the battle scenes shot by Gibson are among the best WWII battle scenes I’ve seen, he perfectly captures the absolute chaos and does something I haven’t seen many do…he shows the truth (or so I’ve heard) of war by rarely showing the Japanese soldiers in the major parts of the battle, instead showing only indiscriminate muzzle flashes, usually through clouds of dust. Hollywood has built this image of soldiers zeroing in on the enemy and picking each other off with a high level of individual intention. The truth is most soldiers spend battles firing into a general direction not knowing exactly what or who they are hitting. Seeing this just adds to the tension and fear, the absolute uncertainty that is a firefight, the feeling that anyone can go at any moment and they won’t even know where it’s coming from.
Andrew Garfield, who plays Desmond Doss, has long been a favorite of mine. Needless to say, I wish I could say his performance was flawless but there is one major problem keeping me from that. During the scenes where he was attempting to really lay on that humble country boy charm, he ended up with something more akin to Forrest Gump than southern gentleman. I was afraid during the first 20 minutes or so that this would overtake his performance and the film but thankfully it was kept to a minimum. Vince Vaughn is wonderfully cast as Sergeant Howell giving the frat pack actor a chance to get back into a dramatic role without thoroughly giving up his comic edge. As you can imagine with a film like this it is not exactly full of laughs but the scenes of Vaughn dressing down his platoon in their barracks are downright hilarious.
The only thing I took issue with in the film was the romantic storyline. This really pains me to say as Doss’s girlfriend turned wife is played by Teresa Palmer, an actress who is severely undervalued in Hollywood. It’s not an issue with chemistry or performance, it really just boils down to the angle having no real effect on the overall story. They could have easily shaved 20 minutes on-screen by keeping to the father/son relationship per-war.
While I don’t feel that Hacksaw Ridge has that “classic war movie” feel I do think it’s a great film and easily the best war film we’ve had in the last 5 years. A film that manages to play equal parts inspiration, action, and emotion I would find it hard to believe anyone could leave the theater disappointed. The only real caveat is for those sensitive to violence as the battle scenes do reach Saving Private Ryan levels of brutality, but if you aren’t a fan of violence I don’t think you’ll be lining up for the movie anyway.
4 out of 5 Guttenbergs
As a quick side note. I can’t help but to mention how funny I found it that they wouldn’t even mention Mel Gibson’s name in the marketing for this film. They used his achievements just not his name by saying “From the director of Braveheart and The Passion of the Christ” (see the title poster in this review). Guess he hasn’t been forgiven quite yet!