Whether it be back when the first trailer was released, when the first screenings (and subsequent tweets went out) happened, or when general audiences finally saw the film, it seems as though all of the conversation surrounding Hacksaw Ridge deals with “the Mel Gibson issue.” Have we “forgiven” him? Can you support the film in spite of the director? While these are good questions and make for an important discussion, focusing solely on the narrative outside the film means we miss out on one little detail: Hacksaw Ridge is a damn good movie.
Telling the story of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), a conscientious objector who served in WWII as a medic without ever touching a gun, Hacksaw Ridge has the real life story needed for a thrilling retelling. Simply having an inspirational figure to base your movie doesn’t automatically make your movie good though. Luckily for us, Mel Gibson’s return to the director’s chair means that Hacksaw Ridge is one of the most enticing war films in recent memory.
The last half of the movie is exclusively about the 77th Infantry Division taking the titular ridge (in order to help advance the Battle of Okinawa) and make no mistake, everything here works. The actual battle scenes are terrifying, intense, and will force you to the edge of your seat. The sound design is engrossing, the cinematography is breathtaking, the portrayal of injury is haunting and the display of Doss’ bravery is inspiring.
In the midst of some of the best “war filmmaking” this century, we cut to Doss doing his job as a medic, quickly bandaging soldiers and running into fire to help those on the frontlines. Every single “normal medic” thing he does it heightened due to the fact that he does not have any weapon at all. It is only after a massive counter-attack, when at least a hundred wounded soldiers have been left behind in the field of battle, that Doss’ bravery is fully displayed on the screen.
I was expecting Hacksaw Ridge to have some “cool” battle scenes, in the same sense that the Call of Duty or Medal of Honor video games are “cool.” And sure, there are some cool or awesome moments during any war film, I mean, by its very nature it needs to have effective action. What I was not expecting was for a specific character to be so enthralling in the midst of an intense action scene. Doss’ weaving in and out of destruction is both frightening and inspirational, but it is most effective at communicating what true bravery looks like.
Now, contrary to my opening paragraph, there has been some good discussion as to whether the first half of the film is as successful as the last. We have an introductory period that is as hokey as it comes, telling Doss’ story of home life and his first (and only) romantic relationship. We then go to boot camp, where Doss deals with not only criticism from his fellow soldiers over his faith-based convictions, but the legal ramifications that come with disobeying orders. There is a little hokey factor going on at boot camp as well, what with the various soldier archetypes interacting with Doss.
What I discovered was the the intensity and heroism of the Hacksaw battle does not work without the hokey set up developing Doss’ character and convictions. Are Doss’ cheesy pickup lines hard to get through? I guess. Does it take away from the overall success of the film? Not at all. Do these goofy moments help you connect with a small town boy whose beliefs will end up saving hundreds of lives? Yes, and that is where it is worth it to spend this time building up who Doss is.
Ending where we started, we need to make one thing clear: Mel Gibson is a hell of a director and Hacksaw Ridge is one of the best directed pictures of the year. Doss’ story is inspirational on its own. It is Garfield’s portrayal and Gibson’s incredibly strong direction that make this story and truly powerful cinematic experience. Seeing follow through on their convictions, in the face of death, was breathtaking. There were many times tears needed to be wiped away while also the need to readjust myself in my seat (these battles are intense). A wholly inspirational film, Hacksaw Ridge is an enthralling adventure we should all experience.
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