Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge is American wartime propaganda, through and through. It occupies much the same space in 2016 as American Sniper did in early 2015, and definitely plays to a similar audience. But more specifically, it feels like a movie made during World War II to drum up enlistments – with all the dodgy moralising that entails.
It’s there from the opening scenes: the bucolic Virginian sun setting over good ol’ boys drinkin’ beer and goin’ to church – and no boy gooder than Andrew Garfield’s proto-Gump Desmond Doss. Desmond’s home life might be less than ideal, but by golly, he’s got a photogenic nursin’ gal by his side, and he’s brought up with a strong set of morals both Christian and military: thou shalt not kill, and thou shalt serve thy country. So he joins the army – but only as a medic.
Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge tells a story that’s worth telling. That’s important to emphasize, because the way that Gibson and his collaborators tell their story isn’t always worthy.
Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge tells a story that’s worth telling. That’s important to emphasize, because the way that Gibson and his collaborators tell their story — specifically screenwriters Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan — isn’t always worthy.
The vehicle that relays the heroic account of patriot Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) fluctuates between inspirational and cheesy. The film can be shockingly gory in its battle sequences, yet overly schmaltzy in its relationship scenes. It’s almost as if two movies are at play in Hacksaw Ridge, and they frequently work against each other. But Gibson finds enough balance, and truly shocks in his battleground combat scenes, resulting in Hacksaw Ridge triumphing over its toughest stretches of on-screen melodrama.
Doss’ story earns big-screen treatment because he’s a compelling contradiction, a willing recruit in the U.S. Army during World War II whose personal beliefs prevented him from touching a weapon. Any weapon. A conscientious objector, Doss had to fight his own superiors just for the right to enter battle alongside his fellow soldiers as a medic. Then, in the titular battle on a hill overlooking Okinawa, he risked life and limb — and stood by his anti-weapon principles — to overcome impossible odds and rescue 75 of his countrymen following a grisly firefight. Doss’ actions earned him the Medal of Honor, and a movie in his honor reaching theaters as we speak.
A pacifist’s war story? That’s right. Mel Gibson, the gun-toting lunatic who anchored the Lethal Weapon series and a trio of Mad Max movies, has changed. This isn’t even the same man who brought the battle-scarred Braveheart to the big screen, or who relished in every bloody step of Jesus’ crucifixion in The Passion of the Christ (though shades of that film’s carnal torture finds its way into Hacksaw Ridge). Instead, Gibson finds his current point of view through the eyes of a man who opposes war, while still feeling compelled to honor country. And it’s that contradiction that gives Hacksaw Ridge its transfixing gray areas, where Andrew Garfield plays on the undeterred doggedness he brings to every role. “Please Lord, help me get one more,” Doss whispers to himself as he crawls around the battlefield, avoiding the enemy and seeking out injured compatriots. (It’s worth noting that religion and faith are in We believe in Doss’ spirit because we can see it in Garfield’s steadfast attitude and throw-everything-at-me posture.
The irony of Hacksaw Ridge, however, is that those who pay to see the heroic exploits of a pacifist will be asked to endure some of the most graphic battle scenes ever put to film. And this is where the Mel Gibson of The Passion of the Christ and Bravehearthasn’t changed a bit, lingering on the bloody and brutal physical effects of combat and staging wave after wave of accurate war deaths. Hacksaw Ridge can be unpleasantly tough to stomach in parts, and I wondered if Gibson temporarily forgot, or overlooked, his target audience as he wallowed in the blood-soaked terrain of the titular crest.
But Doss’ courage on the battlefield shines like a beacon through Gibson’s carnage, and you understand, by the time the credits roll, why you endured the director’s punishment. As I said at the onset, Hacksaw Ridge tells a story that’s worth telling. The first hour lays it on thick, centered on Doss’ troubled home life (Hugo Weaving overplays the role of Doss’ drunk father), his formulaic boot camp (Vince Vaughn does a mean Full Metal Jacket swing as a drill sergeant), and his pious marriage (to the pretty but shallow Teresa Palmer). But when the war hits, Gibson blows the movie’s crippling melodrama to smithereens… but plunges us into the hellish war for a compassionate purpose that makes Hacksaw Ridge worth your time.