I'm way too much of a coward to enlist in the U.S. Army or any sort of military branch, but even if I was braver, I'd still probably be too much of a coward to even think about setting foot onto the battlefield unarmed and into enemy fire in order to potentially save the lives of others who loathed me. For Desmond Doss, a combat medic during the Battle of Okinawa during World War II, this was just another honest day's work. While he couldn't bring himself to even hold a firearm, let alone fire one in the direction of the enemy who wanted him dead, his courageous acts saved the lives of many - the lives of those who tormented and even beat him for his beliefs.
He's the ideal focus for Mel Gibson's comeback film as a director after a decade of dormancy. Indeed, it has been ten years since Gibson stood behind the camera, with the Mayan-centered Apocalypto being his most recent directorial effort, and he shows no signs of rust as he plunges us into the life of Doss. In some ways, Doss was a martyr, and true to his filmography of Braveheart and The Passion of the Christ, Gibson's humanization of someone who was chastised for their personal beliefs proves to be a potent, recurring theme in his films. In Hacksaw Ridge, it's as germane to the film as the stark dichotomy of excess bloodshed and gunfire with the virtues of pacifism is, and just as powerful.
Doss is played by Andrew Garfield, finally playing a role that was tailor-made for his likeness. While he ruled the screen in Ramin Bahrani's tragically unseen 99 Homes, Garfield finally gets a real-life character he can embody here. We open by seeing Doss at any early age, scuffling with his young brother he almost kills after knocking him unconscious with a brick the meaning of God's ten commandments, particularly, "thou shall not kill." Doss lives by this particular commandment his entire life, doing the Christlike thing of risking his life to protect others. Saving a man after he's been hit by a vehicle by tying his belt around his blood-spurting artery is how he meets Dorothy (Teresa Palmer), a pretty local nurse he instantly falls in love with.
Andrew Garfield, Sam Worthington, Luke Bracey
4 November 2016
Steve's Grade: B+
After his brother makes the decision to join the army, much to the dismay and personal torment of their father (Hugo Weaving), Desmond decides to do the same. When the uncompromising Sergeant Howell (Vince Vaughn) demands Doss pick up a rifle in addition to his fellow comrades, he politely refuses, saying that the act of violence and killing - in addition to working on Saturday - is against the doctrine of his Seventh-day Adventist beliefs. Initially, he is ostracized, beaten and instigated by his fellow soldiers, and at worst, he's held in confinement before barely being allowed the ability to enter into battle unarmed after a trial. During the aforementioned Battle of Okinawa, Doss becomes responsible for rescuing the soldiers that were severely wounded or on the verge of death - in total, he saved at least 75 people's lives that day.
For the first hour, Gibson and screenwriters Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan do a commendable job at setting the scene and showing how victimized Doss became for his rational stance. I actually would've loved to spend more time in confinement with Doss, as he did over the weekend he was supposed to marry Dorothy, and completely feel his pent-up rage.
There's no denying the expertise in the way Gibson and cinematographer Simon Duggan (Knowing and the director of photography on Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby) shoot the battle scenes. For most of the second half, Hacksaw Ridge is a brutal war film, not as amoral and as violent as Fury, but damn-close as it shows the carnage and causalities of war with unadulterated gore and ugliness. Each time Doss runs out amidst enemy fire to save the lives of the same people that mocked him, you feel a wave of admirable selflessness that makes you question your own motives and if you'd have the gall or the strength to do the very same thing, regardless of faith. Hacksaw Ridge does what I never tire of and that's evoking some sort of question for the audience that makes you seriously consider how you'd react or whether or not you'd feel compelled to do the same thing. I can't say I would.
Hacksaw Ridge faces the almost inevitable issue of its second half not living up to its first. The core of its humanization comes in the first half, and that's where we see Garfield's character and acting chops develop, in addition to Vince Vaughn taking on a serious role and being truly convincing. The second half is tremendously shot, with a keen-eye for spatial awareness, but the onslaught of violence, while laudably realistic and uncompromising, as well as its heavy-handed iteration of how Doss comes to fully believe in and devote himself to his doctrine, works against the film and takes us out of the experience the first half so elegantly created. Nonetheless, this is the kind of film to please and audience, as well as welcomes back a director we almost entirely - even criminally - forgot about.