I want to start off first by applauding director Mel Gibson for using the term “A True Story” as opposed to “Based on a True Story” when he starts off “Hacksaw Ridge.” You all know how much I have come to despise the term “Based on a True Story” as it has long since lost its meaning, and I have to give credit to Gibson for altering this phrase here. As a director, you know he’s not about to take the easy way out or give us something which feels emotionally false. This continues to be the case with “Hacksaw Ridge,” his first directorial effort in ten years.
This movie tells the story of Desmond Doss, a Seventh-day Adventist Christian who joined the Army in World War II to serve as a medic. The only thing is, he joins as a conscientious objector and refuses to carry a weapon of any kind into the battlefield. At the Battle of Okinawa, he succeeded in rescuing 75 wounded soldiers without firing a single shot, and he was later awarded the Medal of Honor for his acts which went above and beyond the call of duty.
Desmond is played as a young adult by Andrew Garfield, and he is very deserving of the Oscar nomination he received for his performance. From start to finish, the British-American actor imbues Desmond with an unshakable faith in a higher power, and I never saw this faith waiver for a single second. Seeing him square off with a fellow soldier who assumes he is a coward for not picking up a rifle is fascinating as Garfield’s eyes emit a hard-won bravery the others around him only think they possess. This even comes across as he pursues Nurse Dorothy Schutte (the luminous Teresa Palmer) as obsessively as Dustin Hoffman chased Katherine Ross around town in “The Graduate” to where you wonder if anything could stand in Desmond’s way at all.
We all know Gibson is a devoutly religious person, and not just because he made “The Passion of the Christ.” Indeed, “Hacksaw Ridge” could have easily looked silly if it took its subject far too seriously or tried to indoctrinate us or push some agenda, but Gibson doesn’t make those mistakes. The director treats Desmond with the respect he deserves, and he was clearly determined not to make him look like a joke. Desmond was the real deal, and he found the perfect actor to portray him in Garfield.
Gibson also wades through a wealth of war movie clichés which do take away from the final cut, but the scenes are elevated by a number of strong performances from a well-chosen cast. Hugo Weaving of “The Matrix” and “Lord of the Rings” fame (“Welcome to Rivendale, Mr. Anderson”) is a big standout as Desmond’s father, Tom. Being a war veteran himself, Tom has seen the vicious damage it has done to the soul and the psyche. Weaving makes Tom more than the average abusive drunk you see in cinema as he shows his character’s pain over the memories he can’t drink away, and of the terror he wishes to keep his sons from experiencing themselves.
Rachel Griffiths provides the yin to Weaving’s yang in her performance as Desmond’s mom, Bertha, who enforces in her son the importance of God’s commandments, especially the one which states “thou shalt not kill.” She also gives Bertha a strong gravitas which Garfield benefits richly from as the movie goes on, and you can see how her presence remained a strong one in Desmond’s life.
Then there’s Vince Vaughn who gives his best performance in quite some time as Army Drill Sergeant Howell. While his work may pale in comparison to R. Lee Ermey’s brutal performance in “Full Metal Jacket,” at least Vaughn invests Howell with a strong dose of human you wouldn’t often expect characters like these to have in war movies.
But the real meat of “Hacksaw Ridge” comes in the last section during the battle sequences. Now Gibson might not be able to match Steven Spielberg’s powerful realism when it came to those unforgettable opening minutes of “Saving Private Ryan,” but he tops him when it comes to bloody carnage. Bullets fly everywhere, limbs are blown off and guts are laid out for rats to chew on. This should be no surprise as this movie comes from the director of “Braveheart,” “The Passion of the Christ,” and “Apocalypto,” and like those movies, it features a protagonist who has to wade through body parts and blood in order to receive any kind of salvation.
Along with director of photography Simon Duggan, Gibson gives us some of the most visceral and best war movies I have seen in a long time as he shows you the damage war leave in its wake as well as what it does to the souls of those in the front line. It also gives a real-life superhero who selflessly risked his life to help those who could no longer help themselves. While certain sections are undone a bit by an innate corniness which comes with unavoidable clichés, Gibson gives us a war movie for the ages which, in the wrong hands, could have become silly and heavy-handed, but in his, it becomes a celebration of a man who saved so many without even firing a bullet.
“Hacksaw Ridge” had been in development hell for 14 years, and the rights to it were at one point in the hands of Walden Media which wanted to turn Desmond’s story into a PG-13 movie. Something tells me this would have been a mistake as sanitizing the struggles of war would have been an insult to those who fought for our freedoms. Yes, this is an ultra-violent motion picture, but for good reason. Could we have appreciated what Desmond without having a clear view of the chaos he and other soldiers put themselves into? I think not.
* * * ½ out of * * * *