Hacksaw Ridge

Hacksaw Ridge is a World War II drama directed by Mel Gibson about conscientious objector Desmond Doss. Doss was a Seventh Day Adventist from Lynchburg, VA who would not handle a weapon nor take a life but nonetheless felt a call to duty to serve in the war and volunteered for the army intending to become a combat medic.

This is the first film directed by Gibson (no relation by the way) since 2006 when he did Apocalypto.

Let’s address the elephant right away: Mel Gibson is a piece of shit, right? I mean he’s made anti-Semitic and homophobic statements and we heard him saying vile things to his girlfriend in a leaked phone call. He was a shithead on camera during a DUI stop. He’s been described as an ultraconservative Catholic with little patience or regard for liberal progressive ideals.

He’s not a guy you’d necessarily want to have a beer with.

On the other hand I muse over what people would think if my worst personal moments or alcohol fueled rants were on TMZ or printed out and distributed. What if yours were? He’s pushed back articulately providing context on these incidents enough to create doubt. We’ve seen what may be glimpses of his worst moments.

He recently addressed the bad press around the DUI: “It was an unfortunate incident,” Gibson said on “Playback” when asked about the fact that there are many who feel they can no longer support him or his work. “I was loaded and angry and arrested. I was recorded illegally by an unscrupulous police officer who was never prosecuted for that crime. And then it was made public by him for profit, and by members of — we’ll call it the press. So, not fair. I guess as who I am, I’m not allowed to have a nervous breakdown, ever.”

Putting aside whether you’d want him at a dinner party, he’s an extraordinary artist. Look back over his body of work. Gallipoli. Mad Max. Braveheart. Hamlet. Apocalypto. He’s delivered so many remarkable performances on both sides of the camera. He is a singular talent.

Does every great artist have to also be a paragon of emotional health and politically aligned in order to be worthy of having their works regarded? Great art is about tragedy and darkness in the human experience and people with benchmark DSM approved emotional health are probably not the most qualified to relate and translate extremes of the human condition.

That’s a lot of screen real estate to talk about a director but it serves to lay the supporting groundwork to say that Hacksaw Ridge is among the finest films about war and humanity. It’s well deserving of the Best Picture nomination and could win.

Just when it seems all the possible accounts from WWII have been told some fresh angle comes along. War sets the best stage. That makes me wonder what revelations and horrors await us from the two decades of war in the Middle East?

Hacksaw Ridge is simultaneously ghastly and uplifting. This is Gibson’s gift and he’s unsurpassed at putting the viewer into hell and showing you the potential for transcendence even in the bleakest of moments. Doss pursues saving the wounded with religious fervor. His heroism was previously brought to light in the documentary The Conscientious Objector.

The Hacksaw Ridge script hews closely to the facts of his life during wartime without taking much dramatic license. Doss received the Medal of Honor for his service. As a deeply committed Seventh Day Adventist Doss’s religious practice and culture is alien to most Americans but it informed his character and his convictions as did events in his family life that led him to his philosophy of nonviolence.

The structure of the film mirrors other war movies, notably reminiscent of the first half of Full Metal Jacket. Perhaps it gets a little too close with Vince Vaughn channeling Gunnery Sergeant Hartman which as played by R. Lee Ermey forever definitively established the Drill Instructor character. Vaughn brings heart to the role convincingly, particularly in the combat scenes. Doss suffered severe harassment from the other soldiers and leadership during training and a court martial in an attempt to get him to leave the service.

Once the rifle company makes it to Okinawa it is faced with the daunting challenge of the Maeda Escarpment. The battlefield on top of the escarpment was a nightmare landscape of dead and dying, severed limbs and puddles filled with blood. Doss spent each battle during the fierce fighting tending to the wounded, comforting the dying, and carrying those who needed medical assistance back to the ledge and lowering them down. He saved 75 men this way in Okinawa.

Andrew Garfield shines as Doss, infusing the character with joy and humor, which is what Desmond Doss was like.

Gibson has experience combining conviction and extreme violence in films like Braveheart and The Passion of the Christ. The religious influences in Doss’s life resonate with Gibson as well. This is familiar territory for him and he’s comfortable presenting it in a relatable way.

There are some issues with the Appalachian accents in the first act. It took the cast some time to stop overdoing it and settle into a more understated version. Hearing Garfield and Hugo Weaving mugging into an “aw shucks” big ol’ cornpone voice is truly grating. It gets sorted out as the film proceeds but in the opening scenes of Lynchburg, VA it’s a distraction.

Despite some minor flaws the film is an exciting, creative, and stirring walk through war as a cultural outsider who insisted on saving lives instead of taking them.

Hacksaw Ridge (2016) Directed by: Mel Gibson. Written by: Robert Schenkkan, Andrew Knight. Starring: Andrew Garfield, Vince Vaughn, Sam Worthington, Hugo Weaving, Rachel Griffiths.

8 out of 10

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