Hacksaw Ridge (2016)
Director: Mel Gibson
Cast: Andrew Garfield, Richard Pyros, Jacob Warner
Synopsis: WWII American Army Medic Desmond T. Doss, who served during the Battle of Okinawa, refuses to kill people and becomes the first Conscientious Objector in American history to be awarded the Medal of Honor.
Genre: Biography, Drama, Romance
MPAA Rating: R (intense prolonged realistically graphic sequences of war violence including grisly bloody images)
Release Date: November 4, 2016
"One more. One more. Lord, help me get one more."
That's all that was going through the mind of Desmond Doss as he was rescuing soldiers in the Battle of Okinawa during World War II. Without bearing a single firearm to protect himself, Doss relied on his courage, resilience, and wit to navigate the treacherous front lines to help those shot and disfigured from the enemy fire.
Mel Gibson makes an epic return in his first directional effort in a decade with Hacksaw Ridge, a biographical war drama that illuminates the figure of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) as a shining light amid the dark, gritty, and brutal nature of war in which he is surrounded.
The first half of the film is devoted to revealing the backstory of Doss and his struggles growing up with an abusive, alcoholic World War I vet. It's also during this period that Doss forms his belief system of strictly following the sixth commandment of "Thou shalt not kill," stemming partly from his religious mother and also from an incident with his brother Hal .
The film then flash-forwards to several years later shortly after the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. After his brother enlists in army, Doss decides to follow in his footsteps by enlisting as an army medic--thereby enabling him to serve without having to kill. After saying goodbye to his new finance Dorothy (Teresa Palmer), Doss joins his unit, but encounters ridicule from his sergeant and abuse from his fellow soldiers for his refusal to carry a weapon, as his actions are seen as an act of cowardice rather than remaining steadfast to a set of morals. Gibson smartly takes his time with showing Doss's training, serving to reveal his inner battle to remain true to his beliefs despite undergoing emotional and physical abuse from those around him. It is an emotional battle that's grounded and symbolized by the pocketsize Bible that Dorothy gave Doss right before his departure.
Then comes the physical battle.
In Hacksaw Ridge, Gibson delivers some of the most realistic battle sequences ever put on film--sequences that rival and at times exceed those in Spielberg's acclaimed Saving Private Ryan (1998). Soldiers are shot, blown apart, impaled, and set on fire in uncomfortably realistic fashion. The scenes are akin to a train wreck in that they are brutal, tragic, and graphic; yet, you won't be able to take your eyes off the screen. Visual Effects supervisors have spoken that Gibson was adamant about using practical effects as the foundation for the film's visuals, rather than strictly relying on CGI. The difference is staggering. Filmgoers that loved Christopher Nolan's approach of using real explosives to blow up a hospital in The Dark Knight (2008) will appreciate Gibson's approach even more, as flame throwers are employed with real fire that is unmistakably authentic compared to computer-generated fire that is usually used in war and action films. Gibson took it even further, using hidden blood packets on soldiers and setting off real explosives on location to deliver the realistic action scenes. Instead of using CGI as a foundation, Gibson used it as a backup and add-on to fill in spots that are less obvious to viewers, such as smoke, bullet hits on props, and dirt and debris being thrown in the air from gunfire. Ultimately, this method of practicals first and CGI second lifts Hacksaw Ridge far above other war dramas in terms of realism.
But it's not just the stunning action sequences that make Gibson's new film memorable. It's the deep subject matter and themes embedded in the story that also leave viewers pondering as the credits roll. As the Battle of Okinawa ensues, the realism depicted also will undoubtedly remind viewers of the cruel nature of war. Humans are reduced to pieces of meat--similar to a butcher casually slitting the throat of a pig or slaughtering cattle. In battle, you're taught not to see a human, but to see an enemy--a soulless being that seeks to destroy you and needs to be destroyed itself. This is where Desmond Doss's role shines, as he alone sees humans as more than that. He sees them as God's greatest and proudest creation, who, unlike any other creature on earth, were given a soul and made in His image. As a result, he wants to save them, not bring harm to them. This even goes as far as saving the "enemy" Japanese soldiers, who under the uniform are just as human as the Americans.
The human elements play out further in intimate moments when Doss encounters injured soldiers. These soldiers, the same ones who ridiculed and physically abused him during training, are visibly scared and in physical and emotional pain. Their physique is destroyed and all that's left is their emotion--their soul speaking and crying out for help. The situation is analogous to a cynical line from Heath Ledger's Joker, where he states, "In their final moments, people show you who they really are." For atheists and non-religious people, being alive is the only thing that they have in the world. Thus, when they suddenly realize the end is upon them, they break down and show you the soul inside. Gibson knows this, and displays it in graphic emotional detail again and again.
The Christian themes in Hacksaw Ridge are by no means subtle, and can at times come across as preachy, which will turn away some viewers. But, just as Doss doesn't try to convert soldiers to Christianity, Gibson isn't trying to convert viewers to a certain faith. He's trying to show the selfless act of a man who saw the value of human life when everyone around him saw a human as no more than a physical being--an animal. In many respects, Doss represents a Christ figure--someone who selflessly comes into a war-torn and corrupt world, unarmed, and saves the wounded. After his duty is done, he leaves and goes back from where he came (as Doss leaves the war).
The film also features a break-through performance from Andrew Garfield, one that should notch him his first Oscar nomination. Garfield juxtaposes his slender physique with a strong and emotional performance while providing charm, wit, and a bit of humor to the character of Doss.
Hacksaw Ridge is a brutally realistic war drama that features impeccable direction from Gibson, an engaging and thoughtful story on a real-life hero, and a powerful and inspiring performance from Andrew Garfield. And in a world continually being torn apart and filled with death and corruption, perhaps this is just the film we need to see right now.