Released in November, Hacksaw Ridge had been on my personal list of films to see since it was nominated for Best Picture. Initially, I wanted to steer away from it, if only for Mel Gibson being the director and producer.
Hacksaw Ridge is the story of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), the first consciousness objector to win the Medal of Honor, during World War II. The film’s central conflict is the definition of “courage.” One would think that a guy who wants to go into war without a weapon would be the most courageous person in the world (#wouldnever), yet Doss is, by the Army’s definition, a coward.
Doss is subjected by a number of barriers. He has a father (Hugo Weaving….please let Hugo Weaving be my father too), a WWI veteran and drunk, who suffers from PTSD. He has a wife (Teresa Palmer) whose role seems inconsequential (I mean, I guess they needed a love story in-between all the blood and guts flying everywhere). Lastly, Doss’ fellow soldiers are distrusting of him, because how would a man save the life of his friend on the battlefield without a gun…..unless he was, I don’t know, a medic, just like Doss?
Garfield was a surprise nominee for Best Actor. His best moments come when he’s displaying the conflict between Doss’ religious beliefs toward killing, and his duties as a solider. Most of the time, though, he’s in and out of his accent. Garfield is trying to display a Virginian Blue Ridge accent. However, just as with his performance in Silence, he struggles to stay within the character. Often, falling between Doss and himself. It’s not a performance that I would have rewarded, considering that Tom Hanks (Sully) and Joel Edgerton (Loving) were left on the outside looking in.
The film is also weighed down by a complete miscasting of Vince Vaughn as Sergeant Howell. Vaughn doesn’t fit the role of bust your knee caps Army officer, especially when he’s trying to do his best Full Metal Jacket impression. How many war films have to have the moral dress down scene, where every major character is given a piffy and embarrassing nickname? Yes, it’s a shortcut for establishing character, but for once, I’d like to see a war film take the long way round.
The film’s greatest asset, surprisingly, is Mel Gibson. This is certainly a case of separating the art from the artist. Gibson is a phenomenal director. And my initial reaction to him being nominated for Best Director, especially because he likely took the place of Denzel Washington for Fences, was not highly enthusiastic. Yet, after viewing Hacksaw Ridge, it became apparent that Gibson’s art was more deserving of the nomination than Denzel’s, often times, shaky debut as a director. Just as with Braveheart, Gibson is marvelous at turning violence into art. The graphic scenes of men being blown apart, pushing their victims down as they parade bayonets into their chests, while fog and clouds obscure and environmentalize scenes of angst, death, submission, and hatred, is like turning war into opera.
With a lead character who deeply believes in God, Gibson plays toward the Jesus religious persecution role. Garfield is constantly beaten by his fellow soldiers for his beliefs during the night. He is unwilling to submit his faith to those who do not understand him. He prays in a jail cell, with the backdrop of a small window as rays of sunshine are allowed through, as if he’s in a church. And most aggressively, as Garfield is lowered down from Hacksaw Ridge, he is suspended, bloodied, as the fog of war and clouds pass below him. As if he is an angel, who has been given his reward for his sacrifice, and is being greeted by God to heaven.
Hacksaw Ridge is better than your average war film. Whether it should have been nominated for Best Picture over, say Loving or Nocturnal Animal, is difficult to say. But if given a vote…or two, I would have gone with the latter than the former. Still, the film is on Google play, and it is certainly worth the watch.
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