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Thursday, Nov. 3, 2016 12:04 am

True heroism at the heart of brutal Hacksaw

Andrew Garfield as Desmond Doss in Hacksaw Ridge.


On May 1, 1945, the unthinkable occurred. Attempting to take a ridge on the island of Okinawa, the 1st Battalion of the United States Army suffered massive casualties due to heavy enemy fire. Refusing to let his fellow soldiers die on the battlefield, medic Desmond Doss returned again and again, under fire, to where they lay dying and wounded. Over the course of 12 hours, he managed to rescue 75 men who he dragged to edge of the ridge and lowered to safety. That Doss was able to do this singlehandedly is incredible. That he was a conscientious objector makes it all the more remarkable.

What with a hero who draws his strength from his religious conviction and winds up a martyr for standing by these beliefs, Doss’ story is right in Mel Gibson’s wheelhouse. So it’s little wonder it’s the subject of his first directorial effort in ten years. Hacksaw Ridge is a bloody, brutal film that creates a hellish vision of World War II that serves as a crucible for its protagonist to put his beliefs to the test. One part Sergeant York, one part Saving Private Ryan, Gibson’s movie is an odd hybrid of genuine patriotism and fervent religiosity that manages to survive an awkward first act in which the director finds himself on uneasy ground, as he must contend with genuine emotion rather than flying bullets, mangled bodies or overt religious iconography.

Doss’ (Andrew Garfield) young life is rendered through the prism of poverty chic as we witness brief snippets of his upbringing in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. While the family seemingly had nothing and they all suffered abuse at the hand of their drunken patriarch Tom (Hugo Weaving), there’s a heavenly glow about these scenes from cinematographer Simon Duggan to suggest a sense of divinity about our hero. These moments are as poorly written and acted as they are ham-fisted, as Gibson rubs our nose in the moment in which Doss comes to understand the immorality of murder and the finality of death, while his young years are painted in the broadest of broad strokes.

However, once Doss is shipped off to boot camp, the film and Gibson finds its direction and ultimately becomes a rousing testament to selflessness. Registered as a conscientious objector, Doss is subjected to all manner of abuse from Drill Sergeant Howell (Vince Vaughn) and his fellow soldiers, particularly Private Smith (Luke Bracey), and is nearly court-martialed before being allowed to serve as a medic. Gibson renders these scenes in a straightforward yet sincere manner, eliciting good performances from Garfield, Vaughn, Weaving and Teresa Palmer as Doss’ wife Dorothy in the process. Each of these players and those in the supporting cast bring a conviction to the material that prevents the movie from becoming an overbearing sermon touting how one’s faith will see you through the most dire of circumstances.

To be sure, those moments are hellish, as Gibson pulls no punches in portraying the horror of war. Bodies are ripped apart by machine gun fire; others are set aflame, while glimpses of limbs strewn about occur with gruesome regularity. While some may object to the excessive nature of the violence, it ultimately serves to underscore how dangerous Doss’ undertaking was and makes his actions all the more meaningful.

Despite his obvious, overwrought flourishes (Doss’ post-battle, gorgeously backlit baptism scene, etc.), Gibson has managed to make a sincerely patriotic film that skirts the thorny politics that opened the similarly themed American Sniper up to criticism. If nothing more, Hacksaw Ridge reminds us that true heroes don’t wear masks or capes, and their selfless deeds and unshakable conviction is all they need to stand apart from the crowd.

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org.

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