World War II is one of the most frequent eras used for historical dramas when it comes to making period films. This is no surprise as World War II was the largest conflict in human history and thus has produced a large amount of fascinating stories. Many of these films tend to focus on the European theater of the war, as Hitler and the Nazis are such compelling villains. Rarely do we see films that focus on the Pacific theater of the war, but last year we were presented with such a film in Hacksaw Ridge.
Hacksaw Ridge tells the story of Desmond Doss, a very religious man who was a conscientious objector during the war. Doss still felt that he needed to serve his country so he joined the Army as a medic. Unfortunately for Doss the rest of the people in the Army do not take kindly to his beliefs and mark him as a coward. This film follows Doss’ story through his time in the Army up until his courageous acts in the battle at Hacksaw Ridge, where he saved nearly 75 men from almost certain death.
This is a fascinating movie, with a story that had to be told. Director Mel Gibson portrays the horrors of war in an unflinching way not seen since Saving Private Ryan. The movie is visceral and breathtaking. While a bit slow at the beginning, once the attention shifts to the battle at Hacksaw Ridge, the movie becomes gripping and one you cannot take your eyes away from. Doss is played brilliantly by Andrew Garfield who perfectly conveys a man who does not back down from his beliefs. Once on the battlefield his performance reaches a new level though as he portrays a range of the emotion that will get even the most passive audience member pumping their fist as he saves man after man. If Garfield is not nominated for an Oscar it will be a big snub.
This movie is also populated with a lot of great supporting performances. Vince Vaughn and Sam Worthington are perfect as the Captain and Sergeant of Doss’ company. Both are the best they have been in years. We also get a great turn from Hugo Weaving as Doss’ drunk father who is suffering from PTSD to do with his service in World War I. Teresa Palmer also plays her part well as Doss’ wife Dorothy. Perhaps the movie’s biggest surprise when it comes to supporting performance is Luke Bracey who plays what amounts to the villain of this story. Bracey’s Smitty Ryker is a fellow soldier in Doss’ company and one who particularly does not like that Doss will not fight. Bracey gives a nuanced performance that serves as a perfect foil to Garfield’s Doss.
My biggest problems with this movie comes with the writing, some of the editing and a some the direction. In the script by Robert Schenkkan and Andrew Knight many of the characters besides Doss and his father feel shallow. The Japanese are nothing more than an enemy to be shot at, Vaughn’s Sergeant is nothing more than the loud mouthed yelller you would expect, many of the American soldiers felt like caricatures of regional stereotypes, and Palmer’s character is nothing more than the worried wife back home. As for the editing there are some quick cuts and scene changes that do not have flow to them at the beginning. Its almost like Gibson and the editors had no idea how they wanted to tell the beginning part of his story.
This leads to my issues with some of the directing. We all know that Gibson has had a troubled past to say the least. His antisemitism is well documented and his hardcore Christian values can be seen in some of the movies he directs. This film is no different as it comes across as overly preachy at times. I know a lot of it is true and Gibson was trying to make a point about sticking to your beliefs, but at times it felt like the movie was telling us that this only happened because Doss was Christian. I could be reading way too much into it, but that is just how I felt.
Overall, Hacksaw Ridge, is a fascinating war movie that despite a slow beginning ramps up to a spectacular finish. It is a story that needed to be told so that Desmond Doss could get the credit and familiarity he deserves. The movie was nominated for three Golden Globes and I would expect a Best Picture and Best Actor nods to follow at the Oscars. See this move if you have a chance, just know what you are getting yourself into. It is not for the faint of heart, but a great movie all the same.