FILM REVIEW – HACKSAW RIDGE. With Andrew Garfield, Teresa Palmer, Sam Worthington, Vince Vaughn, Hugo Weaving. Written by Andrew Knight, Robert Schenkkan. Directed by Mel Gibson. Rated R for intense prolonged realistically graphic sequences of war violence including grisly bloody images. 131 minutes.
The ads for HACKSAW RIDGE don’t mention the name of its director and with good reason. For many, Mel Gibson remains tainted by his antisemitic rants of several years ago. Fair enough. This reviewer won’t be inviting the filmmaker to his synagogue any time soon. However, sometimes the job of critic is to separate the work from its creator, and such is the case here. Gibson may have much to atone for as a human being, but as a filmmaker, there is no question that he is a man of impressive talent.
The film tells the true-life story of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), and it’s incredible that it’s taken more than 70 years to reach the screen. Doss enlisted in the army during World War II, but as it soon becomes clear, he wants to contribute to the war effort on his terms. He’s a conscientious objector who refuses to pick up a gun–even to qualify in basic training–but is willing to risk life and limb as a medic.
The first half of the film allows us to get to know the man as someone who takes his faith as a Seventh Day Adventist seriously. He has a troubled relationship with his father Tom (Hugo Weaving), who saw his own friends die in World War I, and falls for a nurse named Dorothy (Teresa Palmer) he intends to marry. When he reports for training, Sergeant Howell (Vince Vaughn) is not inclined to indulge him. He and the other men make his life hell, but Doss refuses to back down, even when facing a court martial for refusing a direct order to pick up a rifle.
The second half shows the vindicated Doss’s service during the brutal fighting in Okinawa. Here Gibson does not pull his punches. This is not a sanitized version of war. We see bodies being eaten by rats, wounded soldiers with their internal organs trailing like streamers, and Japanese soldiers burned alive by flame throwers. Seeing this brutality is crucial to underscore Doss’s actions: refusing to carry a weapon, he takes it upon himself to rescue the wounded long after the order to retreat is given. “Let me find one more,” he prays, as he goes out again and again.
As Doss, Garfield gives an Oscar-worthy performance, showing the medic to be a simple man of conviction and courage, not a self-righteous prig. When those who tormented him are forced to admit they were wrong, it’s not cheap melodrama, but fully-earned vindication. The supporting cast, including Rachel Griffiths as Doss’s mother Bertha and Sam Worthington as his commanding officer, Capt. Glover, make for a perfect ensemble.
Clocking in at almost two-and-a-quarter hours, there is no slack here. “Hacksaw Ridge” concludes with some footage of the real Doss and some of the other people portrayed in the film, validating the story we have just watched. In honoring the life of this authentic, if unconventional, American hero, perhaps Gibson is making his own attempt to exhibit humility. As a man, he has a ways to go. As a filmmaker, he is well on his way to redemption.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His new novel, Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel, will be released in early 2017. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.