Not since Letters From Iwo Jima have audiences been treated to a war film set in the pacific theater. And like Clint Eastwood’s loving ode, Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge is the extremely personal examination of ones duty to self and country in the midst of unimaginable horror.
Andrew Garfield stars at Desmond Doss: a doe-eyed, lanky, country boy whose only hobbies appear to be smiling and looking good in slacks. Like all good Americans, he joined the military to fight for his country, much to the horror of his battle-scarred father. And much to the horror of his commanding officer, Desmond is a conscientious objector. He refuses to fire a weapon or even pick up a rifle, figuring that he can help the war effort by becoming a medic. They try to get him to quit through threats, intimidation, and finally a court martial.
But Desmond trusts his convictions, trusts the Lord and is finally allowed to fight for the United States without “a single weapon to defend himself.”
What follows is one of the most intense, horrifying depictions of a World War 2 battle ever put to screen. It is uncompromising, it is gory, and it is not for the faint of heart. And through it all runs Desmond, earning his rightful place in American history.
Hacksaw Ridge shines on multiple levels. The acting is fantastic. Star Andrew Garfield has perfected his country accent. If you didn’t know him you’d never suspect he is British. Vince Vaughn gets a surprising turn as Sgt. Howell, Desmond’s immediate superior. He’s funny in the right ways and serious in others. Hugo Weaving plays Desmond’s drunk and emotionally unstable WWI veteran father. A sobering reminder that war lasts long after it ends.
For a budget of just $40 million the visuals and effects are amazing. With liberal use of a fog machine, Gibson creates horror in the daylight. Soldiers walk across a decimated landscape and eviscerated bodies, many of which are getting gnawed on by rats. The message is clear, war is hell.
But there’s a second message. That even in hell, we can find some humanity. And Desmond Doss provides that for us. His selflessness and commitment to his convictions are inspiring and uplifting.
The film loses marks in a few areas, keeping it from that perfect threshold that Saving Private Ryan enjoys. There’s a jump scare before the main battle that is entirely pointless. As with any Mel Gibson offering, the Jesus imagery is a little too on the nose. And if you take the time to read Desmond Doss’ Medal of Honor description, you’ll find that it sounds ten thousand times more exciting, dramatic, and horrifying than Hacksaw Ridge.
But filmmakers do what they can. They cut things and add things to make a coherent story. Hacksaw Ridge may be cobbled together from the true account and filming necessities but it both pays respect to its incredible source material and gives us one of the best movies of the year. If you can stomach the intensity, see it. I was overwhelmed, and I’m quite sure you will be too.
3 1/2 out of 4 stars.