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
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