A film review by Craig J. Koban November 12, 2016

RANK:  #17


2016, R, 131 mins.


Andrew Garfield as Desmond T. Doss  /  Teresa Palmer as Dorothy Schuttle  /  Hugo Weaving as Tom Doss  /  Vince Vaughn as Sergeant Howell    Sam Worthington as Captain Glover  /  Rachel Griffiths as Bertha Doss  /  Matthew Nable as Lt. Cooney  /  Luke Bracey as Smitty

Directed by Mel Gibson  /  Written by Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan

We need to deal with a rather large and obvious elephant in the room before I review HACKSAW RIDGE. 

Mel Gibson is a very controversial and polarizing figure in Hollywood with ample and indefensible indiscretion-skeletons in his closet, to be sure.  

Yet, when a camera is put in this man's hands, there's no denying that proverbial magic does indeed happen.  He won an Academy Award for his direction on 1995's BRAVEHEART and his work on 2006's APOCALYPTO was among the most overlooked of the last decade.  This man is a bona fide filmmaking maestro and might be the finest actor-turned-director to emerge in Hollywood in the last 25 years.  You can personally despise the man and his personal choices in life, but as for his quarterbacking movie making skills...he's unquestionably a highly gifted and respected auteur. 

Now that we've got that out of the way, let's focus on his latest fact based historical offering in HACKSAW RIDGE, his first film as a director in a decade.  The film deals with the true story of Desmond Doss, the first conscientious objector to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor in combat.  He did so without wielding any weapon of any kind, nor did he attack and/or kill any enemy combatant while serving as a medic during World War II.  He was a staunch Christian that treated the teachings of the Bible as seriously as a heart attack, especially one of the Ten Commandments that plainly outlines an anti-killing platitude.  Not only did he miraculously make it through basic training without touching a firearm (which nearly got him thrown in military prison for disobeying direct training orders from his superiors), but he also did go on to serve in the bloodiest battles in Okinawa on Hacksaw Ridge, where the film gets its title from.  Despite having no means of defending himself, he bravely saved the lives of 75 injured soldiers. 



If HACKSAW RIDGE were not based on fact it would have been a decidedly difficult dramatic pill to swallow.

Desmond Doss was a man that did serve, refused to carry firearms and declined to attack anyone that attacked him.  This story is made all the more astonishing considering the absolute gallantry and intestinal fortitude that he undoubtedly had while in battle.  That, and HACKSAW RIDGE emerges as a different kind of compulsively fascinating war drama in the sense that it not only focuses on one man's limitless heroism on the battlefield, but also on his grit and determination to stay true to his spiritual beliefs and convictions that adhering to his faith while serving God and country in the war was the right and honorable thing to do.  It's also a film that disseminates the meaning and value of patriotism in different forms, which further makes its subject matter all the more captivating. 

If HACKSAW RIDGE were to have a flaw then I would say that its opening half is arguably its most routine and conventional as far as war dramas go in terms of dishing out expositional particulars about its hero.  Gibson opens the film with a flashback by introducing us to the two Doss brothers, Desmond and Howard, and their tenuous relationship with their World War I shell-shocked and alcoholic father, Tom (Hugo Weaving), a man that seems prone to extremely violent outbursts on his children and wife (Rachel Griffiths) due to suffering from what appears to be PTSD.  Flashforward several years and we meet Desmond as a young man (played in an Oscar nomination worthy performance if there ever was one of pure conviction by Andrew Garfield) that's passionately devoted to God, but equally devoted to the cause of enlisting to serve his country in WWII after Pearl Harbor is attacked.  Both he and his brother enlist, much to their perpetually drunken father's dismay, but Desmond takes a drastically different road towards boot camp than his sibling, deciding to enter as a conscientious objector and become a field medic.   

Unfortunately, not many in his platoon, nor his drill sergeant (a refreshingly cast Vince Vaughn), seemed impressed by his unwillingness to engage in weapons training.  This brings him in direct opposition with another superior officer (a never-been-better Sam Worthington) that has grave doubts about Desmond's worthiness to serve.  History, alas, has shown that Desmond made it through boot camp - albeit not physically and mentally unscathed by those who accosted him out of spite - and made it as a medic, serving in the aforementioned battle of Hacksaw Ridge, during which time both sides used any means necessary to usurp control over the other.  Ultimately, Desmond found himself in a traumatically precarious situation that nevertheless left him passionate to serve his country and protect his wounded comrades in arms...without carrying any arms himself. 

The one thing that makes HACKSAW RIDGE so intrinsically compelling is, yes, Desmond himself, and his story is one of a man of deeply cemented faith whose perception of violence and man doing harm to fellow man was shaped not only by his religion, but also by his very upbringing.  Desmond was brave on multiple fronts: He was brave for standing up to his father's vicious attacks as a child; he was brave to enlist and train as an objector in spite of his fellow grunts hating him for it; he was brave for never backing down to even the threat of a court martial; he was brave for standing up to the very military higher ups that collectively thought that he'd never amount to a respectable man on the battlefield; and he was obviously brave for sticking to his non-violence/no guns pacifism even on the warfront while bullets, grenades, and motor fire were constantly being levied at him.  The fact that he risked life and limb to save 75 wounded men - men that never once afforded him an inkling of respect during basic training...and beat on him to prove how much they resented him - makes Desmond's story all the more inspiring. 

When HACKSAW RIDGE makes the segue away from Norman Rockwell-esque hometown drama towards fully encapsulating the ravages of war in Okinawa, Gibson cranks up the film to THIS IS SPINAL TAP levels of 11 by harnessing the breathtakingly barbaric and shockingly frightening extremes of the war itself.  Not since SAVING PRIVATE RYAN has a film depicted the hellish maelstrom of savage humanity on humanity mayhem that life on the battlefield was like for both sides like this one does.  As he proved with BRAVEHEART and APOCALYPTO, Gibson once again reaffirms himself here as a masterful filmmaker of delivering bone crunching and artery spewing carnage...and the relentlessness of his approach here is both mesmerizing and horrifying in equal dosages.  With stupendously enveloping cinematography by Simon Duggan and a bravura sound design that captures every nauseating ambience of these sequences for maximum stomach churning impact (without much reliance on a music score throughout to help sell the tension), Gibson is wholeheartedly and triumphantly in his aesthetic wheelhouse here; it's some of the most strikingly envisioned and executed action sequences that I've seen in a film in a long time.   

Thankfully, Gibson is also a solid actor's director, and he compliments his film's matchless technical merits with enriching and authentically well rounded performances by all.  Garfield rolls out a thick southern accent that thankfully doesn't become too distracting as Desmond, but the beauty of his impassioned and poignant performance here is in how he meticulously commits himself to it during every waking moment during the film.  Desmond is an unbreakable cauldron of goodness, integrity, and courage in the film, and Garfield relays all of that without making Desmond feel too outlandishly noble minded; there's rarely an inauthentic moment with him in the story.  Garfield has terrific chemistry with Teresa Palmer, who plays a kindly nurse that becomes Desmond's wife-to-be and emerges as an unwaveringly focused supporter of her fiancé's cause.  Hugo Weaving may not be able to hide his accent as well as his co-stars in the film, but he's undeniably powerful as a deeply pained man whose addictions and past trauma get the better of him.  Rounding them off is Vince Vaughn, finally granted a detour from his over saturated motor-mouthed man-child roles in comedies to play a rather unlikely role as Desmond's tough as nails, but inwardly tender drill sergeant, a part that makes great usage of the star's ability to tap into both the dramatic and comedic aspects of the character.   

Many have complained that HACKSAW RIDGE paradoxically relishes in and exploits its own blood-soaked combat while preaching a message of peace and pacifism.  These critics miss the boat altogether.  Gibson is not lazily sensationalizing the violence on graphic display here for exhilarating gung-ho effect.  No, the gore here is justified, seeing as Gibson is attempting to cement viewers in the incredibly dangerous situations that Desmond found himself in while trying to save those 75 wounded souls...and all while being utterly defenseless.  A sanitized portrait of the battle of Hacksaw Ridge would have all but neutered the film's overall message and gut/soul punching impact.  Gibson's film is absolutely not for the faint at heart, but his motives here for unleashing the war scenes in all of their sickening detail are crucial to selling Desmond's selfless bravery. 

When all is said and done, HACKSAW RIDGE is a war drama that does adhere to many of the formulas and conventions of its genre, especially during its first 50-60 minutes, but once it thrusts audience members headfirst into Desmond's shoes while serving it becomes a gripping wartime salute to the power of belief and what it takes to remain true to one's self.  HACKSAW RIDGE will easily touch evangelical viewers and placate their faith, but the film will also move agnostic and atheist filmgoers with its achingly moving portrait of one man's unstoppable convictions.  The fact that Gibson never sermonizes and makes the film feel one-sidedly preachy as a faith based piece of propaganda is to its ultimate credit.  

As a heroic soldier of World War II, Desmond Doss was a brave heart of a different and highly unique sort...and once that deserves celebrating.  




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