“Hacksaw Ridge” Movie Review


     Mel Gibson returns to the director’s chair for the first time since 2006 with what I have to consider to be his finest work, and yes that includes his 1996 Best Picture winner “Braveheart.”  “Hacksaw Ridge”, the story of Army Medic Desmond T. Doss and his refusal during WWII to carry a weapon into battle due to his religious beliefs, is a film which merits comparison to the greatest war films of all time.  No film in recent memory brings to life such monumental acts of heroism, bravery, and exemplary service in a way that will leave you shocked, heartbroken, and proud all at the same time.  As Doss, Andrew Garfield (“The Social Network”) turns in an outstanding awards worthy performance, which is backed by an all star ensemble that includes Sam Worthington, Vince Vaughn, Luke Bracey, and Hugo Weaving, as well as several newcomers who make their presence known as Doss’ peers.

     Gibson, working from a script by Robert Schenkkan and Andrew Knight, uses a familiar narrative structure common to biographical films in which the story begins with a young Desmond Doss in rural Virginia where we get a glimpse into his upbringing and some of the important lessons he learns that will shape who he ultimately will become.  We meet his parents, Tom and Bertha Doss (Hugo Weaving and Rachel Griffiths), at a point where it’s clear Tom is an alcoholic and Bertha does her best to raise their two children, Hal and Desmond.  This is a deeply religious family whose values center directly on the bible and the commandment “Thou Shalt Not Kill”, which comes directly into play in a number of early scenes involving the family, but threatens to tear them apart when Hal enlists in the Army to the dismay of Tom, who himself is a scarred WWI veteran.

     Even as his family life seems chaotic, Desmond remains wide eyed and in possession of a smile that stretches from ear to ear.  He also has a natural gift for thinking fast under pressure, with one situation leading to him meeting Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer), a nurse at the local hospital whom he proclaims he will someday marry.  But with the recent attack on Pearl Harbor and the second World War now in full swing, Desmond decides to enlist in the Army as well, but does so as a Conscientious Objector in which he will refuse to carry a weapon or kill another human being.  Instead, his plan is to become a Medic and help heal people on the battlefield, rather than be the cause of those wounds.

     This leads to a lengthy training sequence in which we meet a cast of characters from all walks of life who have been brought together for their initial Basic Training prior to deployment.  The length of these scenes becomes important later, since knowing Private Doss’ bunk mates will be a crucial aspect of whether or not we have an emotional attachment as the story progresses.  Now personally, I got a kick out of Vince Vaughn stepping out of his comfort zone (similar to his turn in the second season of “True Detective”) and playing the platoon’s training Sergeant, Sergeant Howell.  It’s a nifty bit of casting that easily could have thrown the entire thing off, but it works.  Of course, this portion of the film establishes Private Doss’ refusal to use a weapon, something his fellow soldiers and superiors do not take kindly to.

     As the story progresses, the platoon, including each member from the training sequence, as well as Sgt. Howell, are led into battle by Captain Glover (Sam Worthington), arriving on a secured beach on Okinawa.  To this point, Gibson has kept the pacing of the film to a minimum, moving from scene to scene with bits of humor and conversational pieces for character development, but ensuring most everything is void of anything that could be considered intense.  James Cameron used a similar structure in his classic film “Aliens”, in which the first hour seems to lull the audience into a state of comfort, only to suddenly have all hell break loose with out stopping for the entire second hour.  Gibson utilizes the same trick here.  The soldiers we have now accompanied through their training are now moving on an objective known as “Hacksaw Ridge”, a well defended Japanese stronghold at the top of a mountain that is said to be of strategic value in order to gain the advantage in the war against Japan.

     In what I could only compare to the first twenty minutes of “Saving Private Ryan”, Gibson stages one of the most realistic action set pieces ever committed to film.  The sheer brutality of war is brought to harrowing life on a smoke filled battlefield as Japanese soldiers hunker down and bait Glover and his men into a preplanned kill zone.  And Gibson never allows the scene to really let up.  I felt instantly shocked, as it is never a comfortable feeling to see these kinds of things brought to life in a way that seems all to real.  But then something truly special kicked in, as Private Doss displays unrivaled heroism and not only moves about the battlefield without the means to protect himself, but saves countless lives in the process.  

     This is one of those stories that really needed to be told.  Not because Private Doss stood by his family born principals in refusing to carry a weapon or take a life, but because of his selfless acts on the battlefield in which he stayed long after the rest of his platoon retreated, searching for anyone who was still alive and carrying them to safety.  I’ve never seen something so heroic in a film.  I was truly inspired, as my eyes remained damp and watery for the entire second hour.  “Hacksaw Ridge” brings out a rollercoaster of emotion.  Everything from the sadness and horror of war to the redeeming nature of a man who embodied what it  truly means to serve your country.  To see this true story unfold made me swell with pride.  As Private Doss states after his court marshall is dismissed, allowing him to serve as a Medic without carrying a weapon, “I figured since the world is falling apart, maybe we need someone who can help put it back together.”  Those words resonate with me, especially today. “Hacksaw Ridge” is one of the best films of the year.  GRADE: A