Hacksaw Ridge (2016)
★★★★ / ★★★★
His superiors and fellow soldiers believe there is no room for a conscientious objector in the army. After all, how could a person who is opposed to violence able to protect and serve alongside his fellow men in the face of war when such an individual wouldn’t even pick up a gun, not even to practice how to load one, let alone shoot one? So, hoping he’d leave training, they intimidated him, put their hands on him, court-martialed him. Still, they couldn’t rid of him. His name is Demond Doss (Andrew Garfield) and he wishes to serve as a medic in the U.S. Army during World War II. He ended up saving 75 lives—including of those who put in the effort to get rid of him out of fear that he would only serve as a liability.
“Hacksaw Ridge,” based on a true story adapted to the screen by Robert Schenkkan and Andrew Knight, is a war picture that engrosses the heart and mind from the moment it begins until the actual footages of the survivors are shown. Although there is gripping action in which not one moment is wasted, most important is that we understand the subject fully: his religion and his beliefs—the writers make the correct decision to take the time to unspool the difference—and why Doss feels the need to participate in a war that he doesn’t necessarily support from a moral standpoint. This is a film for people who appreciate nuance.
War sequences are intense, thrilling, and horrifying. Several images stick in the mind like gum. For instance, a soldier using a fellow soldier’s upper torso, completely detached from its lower half, as a shield against rapid-fire bullets; flamethrowers being used on the enemy as if the latter were simply roaches to be exterminated; Doss scouring the ridge at night for broken men long after his allies have retreated… while the Japanese are on the lookout for American survivors, wishing to finish them off.
Mel Gibson directs the picture with a keen eye and fresh perspective. There are numerous excellent war pictures, some from America and many around the world, and yet I believe he is able to put a stamp on why this story is worth telling. He personalizes it. For example, notice how there is a very limited number of times where a bird’s-eye view is utilized to depict conflict—certainly less than five. This technique works because by choosing not to pull out of the action, increasingly we feel as though we are one of the soldiers. When someone gets shot in the chest, when a grenade goes off from less than fifteen away, when someone’s face is blown off, we experience the complete horror. Once violence starts, it does not allow us to take a break from the action.
There is a weakness in the film, which I find to be negligible because everything else functions on a high level, and it is in the portrayal of Desmond’s personal life, making up the first act. While scenes at home serve to provide some of the subject’s background information, particularly possible reasons why Desmond is against practicing violence, the parents (Hugo Weaving, Rachel Griffiths) leave a lot to be desired in terms of a full, well-realized characterization. A similar criticism can be applied to the girlfriend named Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer). The performers are up to the task but the material does not give these characters enough depth. As a result, the parents and the girlfriend are somewhat interesting but they do not turn out to be compelling.
Yet despite this shortcoming, “Hacksaw Ridge” is essential viewing because it is able to capture one man’s heroism, without turning him into a Christ figure despite his belief in God, amidst the bleakness of war. Unlike some terrible war movies or movies about war, this particular story is composed of different notes as opposed to simply delivering a hopeful story or, worse, propaganda in sheep’s clothing. Broken down to its most basic element, the film, I think, is about one man’s morality—we may not agree with him completely but we walk in his shoes regardless.