Hacksaw Ridge Movie Review
Out of all the films nominated for best picture, there is one that isn’t getting much attention at all. In Hacksaw Ridge, the narrative surrounding the film doesn’t have much to do the film at all because it’s identity seems to be centered on Mel Gibson’s comeback.
I would say Mel Gibson is a polarizing figure, but that wouldn’t be accurate because you’ll be hard pressed to find many defenders of him. Gibson’s personal issues are well documented but what is also indisputable is that he’s a talented director. Hacksaw Ridge marks his directional return with a film about the true story of Desmond T. Doss, a conscientious objector that was awarded a Medal of Honor for going beyond his duty during World War II. It’s a certainly one of the most graphic films released this year, but it’s also one that shouldn’t be ignored if you enjoy inspirational stories.
The story of Doss begins in rural Virginia in an opening setting that seems like something out of a Normal Rockwell painting. Very early on in the film, it shows how his family’s faith shapes his worldview and it’s a bit different than most others. As a devoted Seventh-Day Adventists, Doss is brought up to adhere to a very strict interpretation of the Ten Commandments. Unlike how difficult that may seem to do in modern times, Doss manages to still live a calm and joyous life. He even can find love and a meaningful life purpose when he falls for a town nurse. However, outside of Virginia’s bucolic setting, war is raging across the ocean, and it’s just a matter of time before it touches home.
Doss’s father is a World War 1 veteran and admonishes war on a very personal level due to the atrocities he witnessed in the trenches. His sons don’t share his feelings, though, and one has already signed up to serve his country. Doss feels the pull to war himself, and it eventually overtakes him because he doesn’t feel it’s right he can’t serve his country while honoring his faith. He decides to enlist as a medic but still while keeping his adherence to the Commandments, specifically “Thou shall not kill.” Very quickly he is weeded out during basic training as a liability and coward for refusing to even touch a weapon. Other soldiers ostracize him, sometimes in brutal ways, but Doss remains steadfast to his faith and refuses to think ill of those tormenting him.
After a brief stint in a military prison for refusing orders, Doss legally fights his way out of it and eventually earns the right to be on the battlefield in Okinawa. The mission is to overtake a ridge and strike a devastating blow against the Japanese that can turn the tide of war. It’s in this portion of the film the action gets intense, and the drama ratchets up to what you expect from a Gibson film. Doss is tested both physically and spiritually on the battlefield, but he never wavers from his patriotism or his faith. In extraordinary ways, Doss shows how his faith can overshadow the darkness of war by the unbelievable feat of saving 75 men, all without ever firing a bullet. This is a true story though so as unlikely as it seems, you don’t need to suspend belief in watching unfold on screen.
Andrew Garfield’s performance as Desmond Doss was terrific and has earned him a Best Actor nomination. Garfield is quickly becoming a well sought after actor, and it’s due to the incredible emotional range he can show in films like this that have gotten him there. As Doss, we see a man fighting an internal struggle that humanizes someone that seems like a flawless hero. Garfield doesn’t play Doss as either an action hero or a miraculous saint, though, and that’s not easy when considering the story being told. Instead, he’s played as a gangly young man that doesn’t belong on a battlefield but so blinded by his creed that it allows him to keep pressing on into hellfire. The scenes on the battlefield are no doubt gut wrenching to watch but Gibson is a believer in not watering down how brutal history is, and I’m one that appreciates that. It may not be for everyone, but with a Best Director nomination, my guess is that critics have found a way to stomach it also.
As in most Gibson productions, themes of faith and redemption are driving forces of the film. Many people will label it as agenda driven but I have no qualms. Everyone has their unique worldviews, and all should be allowed to say what they want through the vehicle of the film as long as it’s done so in a way that is fair, respectful, and engaging. In Hacksaw Ridge, that is exactly what Gibson has done, and I sincerely hope he doesn’t blow his own Hollywood redemption because I enjoy his filmmaking.
War films seem to be out of favor today, and it’s unfortunate that the bravery and heroics of many past men and women aren’t told without big movies. Doss was not a household name, but he might be one now due to this film. This is a good thing because he’s a hero and his story an inspirational one that shows us not all war heroes needed to kill to prove their bravery. And regardless of anyone’s politics or spiritual beliefs, it’s hard not to be inspired by that message.