Mel Gibson has been mostly out of the Hollywood limelight for the last few years, pretty much since the recordings of his drunken, racist, sexist and abusive behavior came out. "Hacksaw Ridge" feels like the first stop on his apology tour, and it's another assured directorial effort on the part of the troubled Aussie.
"Hacksaw Ridge" tells the true story of Desmond T. Doss, a Seventh-day Adventist and conscientious objector who enlisted to fight in WWII yet refused to bear arms. As a battlefield medic, he ended up single-handedly saving the lives of over 75 of his fellow soldiers in Okinawa, and awarded the Medal of Honor without firing a single shot.
The trailers make "Hacksaw Ridge" look like a goofy, sentimental piece of propaganda, but the film is actually a powerful and moving piece of work. There is such an earnestness to the character of Doss that the film could have played like a parody or satire of a war movie. Andrew Garfield plays the lead role with bits of Forrest Gump, Pee Wee Herman and Atticus Finch, while also adding a steely reserve that makes it all mostly work.
The first half of the film carefully sets up Doss, his family and his fellow soldiers, while the second half is dedicated to the bloody battle of Hacksaw Ridge and the heroics of Doss and his friends. Doss has solid reasons (aside from the religious ones) for not wanting to touch a weapon, but sometimes the script seems to battle with the idea that Doss' pride has more to do with it than his faith and convictions.
The importance of faith has always been a touchstone of Gibson's films. His heroes, whether they be Jesus Christ or William Wallace, find their true faith through suffering, misery and inward contemplation of their mortality. Their trials are trials by fire and pain, presided over by the ignorant unbelievers who question the virtue of the oppressed.
For a film about a pacifist who is trying to navigate his way through a war nonviolently, "Hacksaw Ridge" is easily one of the most brutally bloody war films out there. It certainly rivals the Omaha Beach sequence in "Saving Private Ryan" and some of the more disturbing sections of "Casualties of War," "Platoon" and "The Thin Red Line." Still, the action sequences don't feel glorified; other than a few moments of heroic bad-assery, the film lands squarely on the antiwar side.
That is one of the most remarkable things about the film, actually. Gibson and screenwriters Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan show the absolute horror and absurdity of war without taking away from the story of Doss and his incredible accomplishments. Doss followed a set of guidelines he felt the Bible had imparted to him, regardless of what his commanding officers and fellow soldiers believed. By doing that, he not only achieved the impossible, but became a living, breathing Jesus metaphor to his comrades.
As heavy-handed as it all may be, "Hacksaw Ridge" is an incredibly moving motion picture. Even knowing what's coming doesn't take away from the power inherent in Doss' tale. The story of Desmond Doss is an incredible one and Gibson tells it like an artist. It's too soon to tell whether people will forgive him for his behavior, but Gibson isn't waiting around to find out.
Dir. Mel Gibson
Now playing at Old Mill Stadium 16