Every week, the folks at iTunes find a movie they like and make it available to rent for the low, low price of $0.99. I’m here to tell you whether that film is worth your hard-earned dollar.
This week, Andrew Garfield takes us to war without a weapon in Hacksaw Ridge.
I Never Claimed to Be Sane
Growing up in the mountains of Virginia, Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) aspired to little more than a peaceful life. A life away from the alcohol-fueled anger of his father. A life with a pretty nurse from the local hospital. And a life where his passionate pacifism is respected by the people around him. When war breaks out in the Pacific, Desmond enlists in hopes of serving his country as a medic. But he quickly finds that his status as a conscientious objector may not have a place in the U.S. Army … and even less of a place on the battlefield. So begins Mel Gibson’s heroically misguided WWII drama Hacksaw Ridge.
Please, Help Me Get One More
Not that Gibson’s latest film isn’t still an intriguing one. Hacksaw Ridge is often an engrossing tale of genuine heroism. One that pits the devout idealism of an uncommonly moral man against the brutal realities of war. With stakes like that one would think Hacksaw Ridge might play as a parable about what’s right and what’s wrong in the context of battle. In certain moments, that’s exactly what it is. Gibson spends much of the film mired in Doss’ internal conflict about sticking to his beliefs and conforming in service of his country. While Doss never flinches in his beliefs, the same cannot be said for Gibson’s film. In fact, Hacksaw Ridge feels like two completely different movies.
The film picks up with a young Doss traipsing through the Virginia hills with his brother. They cut up. They get into fights. And they learn a near fatal lesson about the dangers of violence. Jump ahead 15 years and Doss is a young man volunteering at a local church. He likes to help people. He falls in love with a nurse named Dorothy (Teresa Palmer) and volunteers for service in spite of his fierce belief in pacifism.
From there, we watch Doss suffer through basic training as he tries to prove his worth to the army despite his inability to handle a weapon of any kind. He has trouble with his C.O. He has trouble with the boys in his regiment. And he eventually finds himself on trial for insubordination. Through it all, Doss remains unflinching in his beliefs. For two-thirds of Hacksaw Ridge, Gibson captures every moment of that struggle with a dewy nostalgia that sets up like a classic tale of war and heroism. The sort that Hollywood doesn’t really make anymore … because these days they just seem naive.
Which is part of what makes the film seem a little too idealistic. And part of what makes the final third of the film so jarring. That overtly nostalgic tone begins to fade once Doss and his regiment set foot on Okinawa. A key strategic point for the Pacific campaign, Okinawa also became the location for one of the war’s bloodiest battles. Survivors of the conflict called it Hell on Earth. And Hell on Earth is exactly what Gibson & Co. unleash. What to say about the battle scenes in Hacksaw Ridge except that there’s more blood, flying appendages, and general carnage in this portion of the film than in the last dozen or so horror movies you watched.
To be clear, those scenes have precisely the intended impact. They’re bloody and brutal and captured with a staggering level of precision and style. There’s almost an elegance to each severed limb and the spilling of every internal organ. It’s impressive to watch it all unfold, but that’s sort of the problem. Even in their savagery, the scenes feel unnecessarily glorified. It feels like Gibson and crew are having fun executing and escalating every excruciating act. That sense of glee lessens the impact of the human loss on that battlefield. And as we’ve spent the entire film with someone who could never take pleasure in such acts, these scenes are completely at odds with the rest of the film.
It’s convenient as well, that Gibson all but loses track of Doss during the worst of the fighting, instead following characters that we’ve come to dislike or just don’t know enough to really care about. The disconnect is almost enough to take you completely out of the story. But Gibson finds his hero with just enough time to save the story. And make no mistake, Desmond Doss is a true American hero. If you know his story, then you know he more than earned the Congressional Medal of Honor that was pinned to his chest. If you don’t, well, I won’t ruin the moment for you, ’cause even if the rest of the film doesn’t quite work as a cohesive whole, that moment still packs a hell of a punch.
Desmond Doss’ actions were nothing short of inspiring. His story is one that deserves to be seen by as many people as possible. It just feels like Doss’ story deserved a better telling. Hacksaw Ridge isn’t a bad movie. Quite often it’s a damn good war movie. But it always feels like a movie. And it too often loses sight of everything Doss stood for – both in the overlong (and poorly acted) prelude to war and especially in the middle of those brutal battle scenes. Throughout Hacksaw Ridge, I found myself wishing it’d been a documentary about Doss instead of a fictional account. As it happens, there’s a documentary out there already. It’s called The Conscientious Objector (2004). And if you’re really interested in Desmond Doss’ story, you should track down a copy that film instead. FYI – you can rent it today for $0.99 over at Amazon Video.