Movie Review : Hacksaw Ridge (2016)
War movies are an old American tradition. Everybody loves watching good ol' square-jawed boys courageously risking their lives against Japs, Nazis, Commies, Viet Congs, terrorists or whoever the enemy is now. They've always nobly served their purpose of making people feel safe because our boys always find a way to win. Since the end of Vietnam war, there has been an increasing number of countercultural American war movies meant to portray combat for what it really is: the senseless slaughter of human lives for a purpose no better than religion. Mel Gibson's Oscar-nominated movie Hacksaw Ridge doesn't belong to any of these categories, really. Or maybe it belongs to both. I guess that makes it interesting. It's very much a flawed and confused movie, but it's kind of gorgeous and original.
Let me explain myself.
Hacksaw Ridge is based on the true story of private Desmond Doss, a conscious objector during World War II who enlisted anyway after Pearl Harbor and became a war hero in the Battle of Okinawa after recklessly endangering himself to single-handedly save the lives of 75 freakin' soldiers. Doss was a little unhinged but totally badass. He is played in Hacksaw Ridge by a very game and committed Andrew Garfield who clearly acted above his pay grade here. This is the best part of his life despite making Doss come off as a little Forrest Gump-ish at times. Josie asked after twenty minutes: "Is he simple? Are you making me watch the story of a simple-minded man walking into a war without guns?" It turned out to be more complicated than that. Desmond Doss' story IS quite complex. Probably more than a movie can convey.
There really are two movies to Hacksaw Ridge, just like there are two movies to Stanley Kubrick's classic countercultural war movie Full Metal Jacket. There is the story of what Desmond Doss believed in and the story of what he did in combat. The first part is not very good. American exceptionalism is a recurring theme in Hacksaw Ridge and the movie portrays Desmond Doss like a special snowflake more than the radical idealist he actually was. Sure, he gets in trouble with his unit Sergeant (Vince Vaughn) in Fort Jackson. Once. Sure, he gets in trouble with his brothers in arms. Once or twice. He gets court-martialed even. For ten minutes or so. He's also conveniently saved by a letter from the Brigadier-General who is NOT EVEN A CHARACTER IN THE DAMNED MOVIE *. These is a screenwriting issue. Hacksaw Ridge rushes through its first half because it cannot wait to get to its own war scenes.
The war scenes of Hacksaw Ridge are its very point. The movie wants to illustrate the senseless brutality of war and it's quite successful at it. I have no idea if WWII battlefields were THIS violent and gory, but Hacksaw Ridge's unfiltered vision of apocalypse is not going to leave you indifferent. They're intricate and gorgeous in their very own way, but their problem is that they're trying to say too many things: war is senselessly brutal, war is also necessary because there are soulless and bloodthirsty monsters after our freedom and, last but not least, empathy leads to our redemption which is illustrated through the battlefield courage of Desmond Doss. I do NOT want to diminish his exploits because what the man did was simply superhuman, but Hacksaw Ridge's director Mel Gibson makes a direct correlation between Doss' reckless courage and his faith, which would be fine if it didn't make him impervious to bullets. He was injured FOUR TIMES in Okinawa and there's only one token injury scene in Hacksaw Ridge. Doss' faith and resolve helped him power through pain and fatigue, not avoid them.
I'm glad Hacksaw Ridge exists although I couldn't get entirely behind it. Desmond Doss definitely deserved his own movie because the point he proved in Okinawa has largely been forgotten by history: non-violence can change the world, even in the midst of war. I loved the idea of Doss becoming somewhat of a guardian angel for U.S Troops which bolstered their courage in brutal combat even if it was rather bluntly put. Hacksaw Ridge illustrated why faith matters in the most Godless moments, which I thought would've been really cool if Desmond Doss didn't seem so shielded from any danger by it. His story was too complicated for the two and a half hours Hacksaw Ridge lasted and I can't even say the movie does a terrific job at exploiting its time. The last twenty minutes of the film was completely expendable. I've enjoyed it from a polite distance anyway. It's undoubtedly flawed, but at least it's interestingly flawed in a way that can kickstart conversations.
* deus ex machinaaaAAAA. Mortal sin of screenwriting.