MOVIE REVIEW: Hacksaw Ridge
"HACKSAW RIDGE"-- 2 STARS
It should come as no surprise to anyone who has followed the career path of Mel Gibson, either in front or behind the camera, that "Hacksaw Ridge" rings up the descriptor of "excessive" more than any film to date this year. Prudish shyness and Mel Gibson are not acquaintances. "Hacksaw Ridge" is a war film of excessive violence operatically woven into a biopic screen story of excessive hero worship based on a true story of World War II Congressional Medal of Honor winner Desmond Doss. Both excesses are laid on very thick. Only half of one of them are worth it.
The partially-charismatic former silver screen web-slinger, Andrew Garfield, stars as Desmond Thomas Doss, a tall-but-meek drink of water hailing from the Blue Ridge Mountain foothills near Lynchburg, Virginia. Son of a guilt-ridden, abusive, and alcoholic World War I veteran father (Hugo Weaving, trying his best) in a Seventh-day Adventist-practicing household, Desmond is a true pious believer of his Lord's Ten Commandments. Inspired to join the war effort in 1942 and smitten by gorgeous local nurse named Dorothy (the impossibly fetching Teresa Palmer), Desmond aims to become a combat medic.
Citing his strict personal and religious beliefs of the Fourth and Sixth Commandments, Desmond enlists under a “conscientious objector” classification in the U.S. Army, refusing to carry or use any firearms. His cooperative stance does not sit too well with the Fort Jackson brass, including his drill sergeant (Vince Vaughn) and battalion captain (Sam Worthington). He is hazed and labeled a coward by his fellow Alpha Male soldiers, led by Smitty (Luke Bracey) and comprised of more stock war movie casting of namelessly nicknamed geographic and ethnic white stereotypes. Overcoming a trumped-up court martial, Desmond is allowed to become a medic and join the Pacific Theater.
“Hacksaw Ridge” builds to its namesake 400-foot Maeda Escarpment at the fateful Battle of Okinawa in spring of 1945. That is where our man gets his chance to earn unarmed glory in battle among the rats, Japs, and explosions. When it was all said and done, Desmond Doss became the first and only conscientious objector of World War II to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, our nation’s highest military award for valor.
If you want to cut to the history lesson, read the official Medal of Honor citation from President Harry Truman. That says it all and it’s 100% astonishing. Dig for a little biographical extra credit, and you will find two Bronze Stars before Okinawa from Guam and the Philippines. After reading all that, it doesn’t take a movie to prove Doss’s heroics, but one can easily see how his story of bravery is the kind of awe-inspiring heroism that deserves one. This is the half-of-a-half of “Hacksaw Ridge” that is worth respect.
The trouble is this proper hero worship is drawn out and overstated in a bloated film that could lose 20 minutes of first-act exposition and 15 minutes of battle scene redundancies from its 131 minutes. To me, the details of that citation from the Battle of Okinawa are all you need to make a tight and impactful film. Personal details could have been peppered in and paved along the way (ala “Gravity”), revealing and proving the Doss character as he goes. We get one such shortcut scene of Garfield and Bracey trading stories in a foxhole and it’s the five best-acted minutes of the film, which isn’t saying much from an Andrew Garfield that makes for the least-convincing Virginia hayseed possible and Bracey’s zero-depth attempt at machismo.
In order to get to the promised action, audiences will navigate a monotonous opening act filled with rambling paternal speeches, family flashbacks, a shoehorned love story, and a wasteful court martial case that overextends the true story for no dramatic gain. Understandably, the clear intention of these earlier scenes in “Hacksaw Ridge” plant roots to establish his endearing principles. All of that could have been accomplished in a swift prologue of basic training where you still have to swallow Vince Vaughn’s sarcastic aping of a R. Lee Ermey impression and Sam Worthington’s wooden sense of sternly-worded authority.
The sweet tea picnic and pontificating finally end when the bullets start tearing soldiers to shreds on both sides. Gibson has always shown proficiencies for violence, ambivalence to the enemy, and helming epic battleground set pieces. He does not skimp on the digital and practical blood squibs and hasn’t lost his prolific warrior chops in a relentless and blistering Okinawa sequence that surpasses the legendary “Saving Private Ryan” opening sequence for length, intensity, and gore. Doss’s acts of heroism, orchestrated by Rupert Gregson-Williams’s brassy swells, do shine through like a ray of hope. The worse the battle gets, the more you grow to appreciate his efforts. Still, it’s all too excessive. Less is more, but that was never going to be Mel Gibson.
LESSON #1: THE ROLE OF CONSCIENTIOUS OBJECTORS-- Doss, and other historical examples, are proof of the value of conscientious objectors in the arena of war. There is a place where pacifism can earn equal respect to combat. Desmond succeeded in a role where his eager patriotism could still serve the greater cause without taking lives. It is a solid example too often missing in violent conflicts.
LESSON #2: MAINTAINING YOUR PRINCIPLES IN WAR-- Desmond Doss’s values were under as much attack as the Allied powers. War is a place where men are pushed to the brink of fight-or-flight and kill-or-be-killed. Desmond, with his trusty Bible in his chest pocket, never wavers, never demonizes, and holds onto his purest principles as a survivor and a believer.
LESSON #3: CORRECTING JUDGMENTS-- Arguably the most positive message of all from “Hacksaw Ridge” is Desmond proving his worth to erase the labels of cowardice among his peers and superiors. Even if he rescued one man and not dozens, his measures of bravery, courage, and valor soar off the charts. Like the man next to him armed with a rifle, Desmond, without one, was willing to risk or give his life for his fellow soldier at an equal or greater level.