It would be easy to reduce the Mel Gibson-directed feature film, “Hacksaw Ridge,” down to an argument of whether it is for or against war. The elements are certainly there.
The film is based on the true story of Private Desmond T. Doss (Andrew Garfield), whose heroics during the battle of Hacksaw Ridge on the island of Okinawa are so much larger than life that they almost seem fictional. At the same time, Doss is a Seventh-day Adventist who is a conscientious objector. He makes it very clear there’s no greater sin than killing someone, a belief he holds true even in the time of war.
Don’t saddle yourself with the superficial argument about war vs. no war, though. What Gibson has created is a much-faceted love story where war just happens to be the backdrop. This is the touching tale of a love between a man and woman, a man and his country, and the men who walk into war as bands of brothers. It’s those connections that make “Hacksaw Ridge” the best story about those who go to war since “Saving Private Ryan.”
Despite his peaceful ways, Doss goes into the Army because he feels it’s wrong to be safe at home while friends and neighbors are going off to fight. He wants to do his part as a medic but that request is complicated when Doss refuses to pick up a rifle.
His actions brand Doss a coward and trigger an attack by the other men in his squad. But the strength Doss gets from the faith and love he has in his country, his girlfriend (Teresa Palmer) and his religion keep him moving forward. All of this gives him the strength to save 75 wounded men when all others had left the battlefield.
Playing a pacifist in such a deadly war zone is a tricky deal. Garfield shows just the right of commitment to make the hardline stand feel real while allowing his emotions to occasionally bubble to the surface. Playing the role with too little commitment would have turned the character into a World War II version of Gomer Pyle.
Garfield’s performance is full of truth and passion, two terms that would describe the real Doss. Any slip, and the audience would never buy the story, despite it being based on real events.
Palmer’s performance as the “girl back home” and Hugo Weaving’s brutal portrayal of Tom Doss, father to the private, are flawless. They provide the support that Garfield needs to make his performance work as strongly as it does.
The weak link is Vince Vaughn as Sgt. Howell, the man in charge of the Doss’ squad. Vaughn’s a physically imposing person, but he doesn’t have the military might to make his turn as sergeant as strong as it should have been.
Gibson’s battle sequences are presented with as much intensity and power as the movie’s emotional ones. He doesn’t scrimp on the bloody portrayal of the military operation that left hundreds dead or wounded. Gibson has always known how to handle big fight scenes dating back to “Braveheart.” This is the accumulation of all that work displayed in scenes too horrible to watch and too mesmerizing to turn away from.
“Hacksaw Ridge” will spawn debates, but they shouldn’t be about the merits or evils of war. This film should make you ask if there is anything that you are so committed to that you would stand up to ridicule, abuse, hatred and scorn. And how much of the strength to overcome that would come from love.