Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Film Review: Hacksaw Ridge

Sexuality/Nudity Acceptable 
Violence Mature
Vulgarity Mature
Anti-Catholic Philosophy Acceptable

What I like about a Mel Gibson war movie is that he brings both the horrors and the heroism of the battlefield come to life in a powerful way.

Hacksaw Ridge is based on the true story of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), a Seventh-Day Adventist who volunteers for the army during World War II.  But his strict moral code will not allow him to carry a weapon.  He wishes to serve as a medic, but he runs afoul of his superiors when he refuses the weapons part of his training.  Added to this are his overbearing, alcoholic father (Hugo Weaving) and his growing romance with a local nurse Dorothy (Teresa Palmer).  And his principles are put to the test when he is confronted with potential legal action in training and a ruthless enemy in war.

Director Mel Gibson once again delivers a visually and thematically powerful film.  He is one of the few directors that can incorporate overtly religious themes and images without it feeling ham-handed and preachy.  Most "Christian movies" fail because they choose preaching a message over telling a story.  Gibson knows that his job is to tell a story, but he does not shy away from using the whole world of Christian art, culture, and symbolism to tell that story.

And Hacksaw Ridge brings up the relationship between violence, war, relgious faith, and conscience in an incredibly thoughtful and emotional way.  Too often war movies gloss over the moral consequences of war, even if it is for the noblest of causes.  And Doss is challenged by fellow believers about his absolute non-violence.  It is a good reflection and meditation on how the believer should approach the taking of human life.

Another thing that the story does well that too few war movies do, is that they give the other soldiers in Doss' company distinct looks, names, and personalities.  I remember leaving movies like American Sniper and having a hard time remembering any soldier who was not Bradley Cooper.  But Hacksaw Ridge makes sure that we get to know the individual members of the group starting with Sgt. Howell (Vince Vaughn) who is both imposing and funny in his meanness.  Then there are others that Howell sarcasticlly nicknames like the vain Private Hollywood (Luke Pegler), the gaunt Private Ghoul (Goran D. Kleut), or the bully Private Idiot (Luke Bracey), and so on.  While these characters are supporting characters in the strict sense that they exist in the screenplay to move along Doss' journey, they are at least interesting enough that when the blood and bullets start flying, you feel real peril for them.

The biggest flaw in Hacksaw Ridge is that it feels like two different movies.  The first half is Doss' life and training in the army.  The second half is the battle at Hacksaw Ridge, a patch of land above the cliffed shores of Okinawa that the allies desperately need to take in its battle with Japan.  This wouldn't be as big of a problem except that the second half is far superior to the first.  The first half isn't bad, but the sheer visceral intensity of the second half had me on the edge of my seat.  While the first half does a great job of setting the emotional stakes, I can't help but feel that the battle scenes were cut a little short because of it.  And once all is said and done, the first half feels a little bit too soap opera-y in context of the whole film and its depiction of war.

And those scenes on the battlefield are some of the best I've seen since Saving Private Ryan.  Gibson pushes for bloody ultra violence in a way that does not glorify the violence but glorifies the courage of the men who face that violence.  And instead of only nameless, faceless soldiers flying into the arms of danger, you see characters that made you laugh and connect with enter genuine peril.  And the intensity doesn't relent for a long while.  It was incredible to not only watch Doss' bravery and compassion, but also his on-the-spot ingenuity to save not only his life, but the lives of others.  My mind reeled at his quick-thinking as I imagine myself only freezing in panic were I in his shoes.

The only other weaker point would be the performances.  None of them were bad, but they pushed a little too far.  Garfield played Doss with a quiet intensity that was powerful, but there was something about his accent that kept throwing me off.  And that issue with the accent is a real shame because everything else about his performance is spot-on.  Weaving also chewed the scenery a bit too much but was able to rein it in at the end.  This has been one of my favorite Vaughn performances in a while because it allowed him to stretch not only his comedic but dramatic skills.  Palmer does a nice job as the love interest, but is not given much else to do.  But I was really impressed with Bracey as Private Idiot who could have come off as a simple one-note bully, but is able to add layers under that stoic exterior.

Hacksaw Ridge is one of the better war movies I have seen.  The fact that these actors are portraying real men and women filled me with even more gratitude for that Greatest Generation and challenged me to think about how I contribute to the betterment of the world.

4 out of 5 stars.

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