Grace under pressure, courage under fire, call it what you will but the ability to keep a level head when bullets fly or hell rains down from the heavens is something that just can’t be taught. From Saving Private Ryan (1998) to American Sniper (2014), in the war genre bravery is almost always represented by a character that faces extreme loss and threatened principles, only to rise from the ashes in glorious fashion. While Hacksaw Ridge (2016) is no different in its determination, it takes the phrase to a whole new level, showing the steadfast resolve of a man who would not quit or compromise in his belief that raising a weapon was not the only way to win a war. When biology conditions us to freeze, fly or fight in the face of fear, one man proved that there is another option. An option we can only call faith.
A film more than 14 years in the making, Hacksaw Ridge tells the tale of Desmond T. Doss, a conscientious objector who after serving in World War II received the highest award that can be bestowed on a serviceman - the Congressional Medal of Honor – having singlehandedly saved approximately 75 men yet never raised a rifle in the process. A devout Seventh Day Adventist, when we first meet Doss he is a country kid from the Blue Ridge Mountains, already drawn to helping people after saving a young man crushed beneath a car. Wanting to do his part in the war and follow in the footsteps of his brother and father, he begins to read up on healing practices and enlists to become a medic. Refusing to carry a weapon based on his beliefs, when he is assigned to an infantry unit Doss is faced with overwhelming ridicule and persecution, not just from his company, but from the army itself. To them, it seems that he goes against the golden rule of American warfare; that of protecting your fellow soldier’s back, just as they protect yours. Steadfast in his stance, he is eventually sent to the battlefield at Okinawa, sans gun, where he is finally able to prove just what protection he can afford, going from believer to hero and ultimately, legend.
A lot has been said about the film’s director Mel Gibson in the last few years, but for all the anger and intolerance he has thrown around it cannot be denied that he does not bear at least some of the same courage and conviction of his lead character. His first film since 2006’s Apocalypto, it might be his best yet, if only for the fact he has dug through the proverbial dirt and grime of his own life to carry it to victory. The sentimentality is overwhelming at times, the score swelling with every emotional moment and slow motion camera shots lingering over our heroic angel-esque lead. But there is a distinct sincerity in the way Gibson handles this, crafting a slow burn build-up that helps us understand why Doss takes Pearl Harbour personally, but still wants to save lives instead of take them.
A scrawny Brit best known for his turn as The Amazing Spiderman, Andrew Garfield sinks his teeth into portraying a different kind of superhero here. Despite the sickeningly sweet nature of his character, one who sets his heart on marrying a nurse the first moment he meets her, Garfield is able to tread a miraculously fine line in proving that even the most pious among us can still have darkness within. For Doss, the real battle is rising above, ensuring his violence never bubbles to the surface like it did for his abusive and alcoholic father. Supporting him on that journey is an exemplary cast, each giving it their all to ensure our eyes never leave the screen. Vince Vaughn is reserved as Sergeant Howell, a man quiet in his ferocity yet instantly likeable in his devotion. Similarly, the bevy of Australian actors who round out the roles all manage solid performances, including Sam Worthington as Captain Glover and Luke Bracey as Smitty Ryker, elevating their angry and villainous stereotypes into well-rounded characters.
The visuals are incredible, roaring to life with a grim relentlessness that drums home the reality of war. It is bloody, it is violent and above all, it is not something to glorify as many directors often try to do. Instead, it is bodies lying broken in the mud, tourniquets that can’t save people and the rush of heat as flesh is set on fire. As an audience member it is such a spiritually draining experience we are left questioning just how the men were able to go through it themselves. Staged, choreographed and shot beyond precision, the camera never shies away from the nightmare, providing one of the most detailed and unflinching portrayals of war put to screen. Thankfully, buried beneath the bloodshed there is also an incredible humanity to the battle, with friendships forged in the bowels of the staggering violence and the ‘no man left behind’ mentality pushed to its extreme. Gibson’s propensity for gore in almost unrivalled in Hollywood, however here it never feels overdone or thrown in for the pure shock value. It would be a dishonour to those that fought in the Pacific theatre to depict it any other way.
Careful and calculated in its every move, Hacksaw Ridge is at its purest a look into the human soul. Even without the strong religious connotations it imbues, one can sense a power and poignancy to such sacrifice. It is, after all, an innately human thing to summon the courage to run back into the fray over and over, with only the mantra ‘help me get one more’ to keep you safe. This is perhaps best exemplified by video of the real Doss at the end of the film, recalling those same words in his American sprawl and looking like your average 87-year-old. For us audience members, we are just thankful he got there.
Rating: 5 Saved Lives out of 5
Superhero films are about a dime a dozen these days, the caped crusaders battling it out on the big screen and saving people like it’s simply an everyday occurrence. Amidst all the flashy CGI and awesome action though, we sometimes forget that it doesn’t always take idealised characters to pull off such extraordinary acts. That is where Clint Eastwood’s latest biopic Sully (2016) comes in, delivering us what could arguably be the seventh superhero film of 2016, detailing the complexities of the event the world dubbed the ‘Miracle on the Hudson’. Despite the obvious outcome of the titular character’s quick judgement, just like the heroes in Captain America: Civil War (2016) or Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), our real-life protagonist was measured on how he executed his good deed, instead of simply the fact that he did. Like the line goes, he’s had forty years in the air, but in the end he’s going to be judged on 208 seconds. And judged he was.
For those that don’t know the story, on January 15, 2009, US Airways Flight 1459 left New York’s LaGuardia airport on its way to Charlotte Douglas International Airport, where it was set to stop over before flying on to Seattle Tacoma International Airport. Just three minutes into the flight and only 2,800 feet into its ascent, a flock of Canadian geese struck the plane causing critical engine loss. As the aircraft began to lose altitude Captain Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger (Tom Hanks) and First Officer Jeffrey Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) considered their options to return to LaGuardia Airport, land at nearby Teterboro airport or make the difficult decision to ditch the airliner off Midtown Manhattan in the Hudson River. They chose the latter. All 155 souls on board, including 150 passengers, 3 crew and 2 pilots survived the forced water landing of the Airbus A320, evacuating the partially submerged plane as it began to sink into the river, before being rescued by a number of nearby watercraft. In the days after the crash however, the National Transportation Safety Board began to look for a scapegoat amidst claims a safe landing could indeed have been possible at either of the nearby landing strips, leaving everyone wondering whether the right choice was indeed the one made.
Sully is a complex tale that develops from a seemingly clear-cut event. While many would simply see the incident as the act of heroism it is, director Clint Eastwood takes the opposite approach, sowing the seeds of doubt as to whether a safer and more viable option was available and turning achievement into government persecution. Over 35 films as director Eastwood has developed a tendency to villainise one group to ensure the valour of another and in a film that sees one man almost singlehandedly save 154 others, it’s run its course as a petty payoff. Heroes do not always need to be torn down to rise to victory, sometimes their actions alone are triumph enough. Eastwood instead panders to the politics, with an extraordinary individual targeted by those in power simply for being himself. One is left to wonder just how much better the story could have been had it been anchored in the psychological trauma those involved were left to deal with.
While for the most part Sully launches well and lands strongly, that’s not to say there isn’t some turbulence along the way. For one, it suffers technical problems in the position of the highly anticipated crash scene. Opening with a clichéd ‘what if’ scenario to get us on edge, Eastwood saves his big reveal until halfway through the movie, making us wade through forty-five minutes of flashbacks and frenzied fame until we reach the inevitable climax. What’s worse though is that Eastwood recounts the scene again nearly cue for cue in the final moments of the film, taking away all the original impact and alienating the humanity he was trying so hard to invoke. That being said, considering audience members not only know the crash is coming but also its positive outcome, Eastwood works his magic to make it adrenaline pumping and heart-hammering, as we tense on the edge of our seats and pray we never have to go through similar events.
Incredible acting is arguably what holds the broken pieces of the film together, with both leading men doing an outstanding job and giving their utmost to honour their real-life counterparts with genuine emotion and charisma. While screen veteran Hanks boasts an effortless charm as the moustachioed, white haired hero, Eckhart manages an unshowy and unassuming turn as Sully’s support act, deserving just as much praise and acclaim. The remainder of the cast is solid too, rounded out by some acting greats, including Anna Gunn, Mike O’Malley and Laura Linney. Although their performances are relegated to burn in the background, they are nuanced and tempered, bringing understated warmth to the film. It’s a shame therefore that Eastwood isn’t as generous with their time as he could have been. I mean, there has never been a more apt phrasing for Linney’s role than that of ‘phoned in’.
The shortest film Eastwood has directed to date, Sully is a portrait of how important humanity is to some of society’s most devastating catastrophes and near-misses. From the cabin crew who remain calm and call out commands, to the air traffic controllers, ferry operators and pilots who made crucial, split-second decisions that saved lives. You don’t have to be a superhero to work together. You don’t have to be a superhero to care about one another. No line from the screenplay paints the film’s picture better though than when you are brought to the realisation that New York is so often devoid of good news, especially when it comes to planes. Despite its flaws, Sully pulls no punches in hitting home just how heroic one man can be. If only Eastwood had done as good a job as Captain of the film, maybe all the cinemagoers would walk away feeling it a miracle, instead of simply a moving tribute.
Rating: 3 Window Seats out of 5
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