After spending nearly fourteen years in development Hell including the subject himself passing away in 2006 before producers fought to rescind the material from Christian financiers aiming for a PG-13 friendly cut, the story of WWII medic and Medal of Honor winner Desmond Doss (brilliantly played by Andrew Garfield) finally comes to the screen in director Mel Gibson’s first film in ten years, Hacksaw Ridge. The story of a simple Lynchburg, Virginian who enlists in the Army during the Second World War who finds himself at the epicenter of controversy due to his conscientious objection to carrying a firearm in combat, it’s the story of true patriotism, bravery and heroism lived out by a man who never once fired a weapon within the front lines. Somewhere between the military camaraderie depicted in From Here to Eternity and the gritty combat sequences in Saving Private Ryan, it’s a touching and captivating story not too many people of our generation know about and likely served as the inspiration for Forrest Gump’s own scenes of bravery during the Vietnam War segments. The question is, will this WWII drama set in the heart of the dreaded Hacksaw Ridge in Okinawa, Japan be director Mel Gibson’s ticket back into the good graces of Hollywood and mainstream moviegoers?
The answer is yes and no for a few reasons. For one, the scale of Gibson’s war film is decidedly smaller than say Braveheart or Apocalypto and in between his trademark vistas of slow motion bloodletting and war violence and ornate camerawork are CGI enhancements that work against the strength of his images. One shot looks as real and fully developed as anything in Gibson’s filmography and the next one looks, well, like what you’d see from most movies released by Summit Entertainment (Twilight; God’s of Egypt). It’s a shame because the footage shot by Gibson and cinematographer Simon Duggan is largely splendid and full of scope. The next problem, though I suppose it’s minor in the scheme of things, is the casting of Vince Vaughn as a drill sergeant. As much as I like him as a comic actor and being a semi-decent villain in True Detective but I didn’t buy him as an FBI agent in The Cell and don’t buy him now barking orders at new recruits. That said, Hugo Weaving as Doss’ drunken and depressed father struggling with his own postwar demons gives one of the finest performances of his career and truly goes out on a limb making the dad look pathetic and aged by alcohol. As for Desmond Doss himself, Andrew Garfield gives the conscientious objector a wholesome small town American charm with a conviction that comes through stronger than the Army itself can withstand when faced with a life and death situation while never compromising his moral values.
This could well have gone the Christian faith based movie route, which it came dangerously close to becoming. But in Gibson’s hands it’s a solid WWII film that features all of the director’s trademarks including the heavenly choral score by Rupert Gregson-Williams and his own penchant for graphic violence. Amazingly, considering Gibson’s previous films seemed to dabble in increasing ultraviolence to the point where some detractors were quick to dub his images “pornographic”, Hacksaw Ridge shows Gibson at arguably his most restrained with particular emphasis on a nonviolent approach to war. It’s the kind of film Clint Eastwood would have directed had he had the chance. Like Doss himself says during a court marshaling for refusing to carry a weapon, seeing the world tearing itself apart with violence can’t help but make him want to ‘give life back’ to the world through nonviolence and saving the lives of wounded comrades. After being mired in scandals for years that alienated much of Hollywood and filmgoers alike from giving Mr. Gibson more of their time and money, Hacksaw Ridge marks a departure from the director’s usual unrelentingly brutal fare and instead finds him vying for nonviolence and love while shedding light on the vitality of the medic in combat and how their work is just as much of a fight as the soldiers with firearms. While imperfect and not quite as polished as some of Gibson’s earlier efforts, it’s a refreshing and positive step in the right direction for him.
- Andrew Kotwicki