Hacksaw Ridge Review
HELP ME GET ONE MORE…
World War II (aka WWII or WW2) was a difficult time, facing war, death, and violence across many nations and thousands of lives caught in the middle. Spanning roughly six years (from when the war officially began and ended), World War II was a chaotic war, with the Allied forces (US, England, France, and Poland being the key players as well as several other nations who would join) facing off against Germany’s Nazi regime (led by Adolf Hitler) and other Axis-powered nations (Italy and Japan). As many know, the war was fought on two fronts; one being waged in Europe (against Germany and Italy) and the other being waged in the Pacific Ocean (against Japan). From this turbulent time of war, come stories of bravery, valor, and sacrifice, tales of men who fought against insurmountable odds and live to tell their story or help turn the tide of battle. Over the years, many veterans of the war have told their various memoirs of their involvement in WWII (via mostly books) with Hollywood taking an opportunity to cinematically represent their account through either feature films and some TV mini-series programs. One particular tale has caught the eye of actor / director Mel Gibson with harrowing story of Desmond Doss as Gibson and Summit Entertainment present the film adaptation of his story in the new film Hacksaw Ridge. Does this bio-war drama find its resonating target or is just another “paint-by-numbers” Hollywood war flick?
Raised in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia as a young boy, Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) learned the harsh reality impact of violence early, raised by his alcoholic father, Tom (Hugo Weaving), who is haunted by the loss of all of his friends from WWI. Growing up into a responsible, God-fearing man, Desmond’s heart catches wind of the young Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer), a nurse who takes a shine to his humble and kind-hearted ways, with the pair eventually getting engaged to be married. However, before walking down the aisle with Dorothy, Desmond, feeling the need to do his patriotic duty to serve his country, enlist in the army. Arriving for basic training, Desmond, proclaiming to be a Seventh-Day Adventist, desires to be a combat medic, refusing to take part in the handling and training of gun. This, of course, inferiorities his superiors, with Sergeant Howell (Vince Vaughn) and Captain Glover (Sam Worthington), Desmond’s religious faith is put to the test through hazing, menial labor duty, drawing ire from fellow comrade trainee Smitty (Luke Bracey). After pending a court-martial hearing, Desmond, along with the rest of his unit is shipped overseas to Japan to take Okinawa, participating in the ferocious battle to take Hacksaw Ridge, and presenting the young man with a hardship challenge of survival and duty.
THE GOOD / THE BAD
Sorry for the mini-history lesson above, but you’ll be surprised how many people don’t know about WWII. Like I said, the second World War was long and terrible, filled with sadness, death, and gruesome battles on both battlefronts (i.e. in Europe and in the Pacific Ocean). Some years after the war, Hollywood began to produce films about WWII, fixating on this war due to the large impact it had on the world, its people, and in many cultures. While the war may have ended roughly 71 years ago (from today), Hollywood still hasn’t given up on recreating the battlefields of WWII, fixated on some fictional dramatized characters, but mostly on the real-life accounts of those who fought and / or participated in the war. Some of my personally favorite movies about WWII include Patton, Saving Private Ryan, The Guns of Navarone, Flags of Our Father, Inglorious Basterds (not really a hard-hitting historical drama, but still pretty good), and Unbroken. Perhaps my personal favorite isn’t a feature film, but rather a TV mini-series and, of course, I’m talking about HBO’s Band of Brothers and the follow-up min-series The Pacific. Both are incredible and do a good job showing the battlefronts in two “theaters of war” during WWII. I do highly recommend both of them to watch (if you haven’t already).
Now back to my review. I remember hearing about the trailer being released for a movie called Hacksaw Ridge, with Andrew Garfield being the lead role, but I dismissed it at first. I know, it’s true. I usually praise the film’s trailers because I loved them, but I didn’t take much note of it as I didn’t even do a post for the trailer until sometime after was officially released online. When I did get around to seeing it (the trailer), which I believe it was in theaters around the end of September, I was definitely intrigued to seeing the movie when it came out. I couldn’t believe I dismissed the movie’s trailer so easy. So…what did think of the movie? Well, I loved it! With only some minor quibbles, Hacksaw Ridge is a stunning and vivid WWII drama that successfully blends the horrors of the war and the indomitable power of faith through such perilous times.
Hacksaw Ridge is directed by actor / director Mel Gibson, who has directed such films as Braveheart, The Passion of the Christ, and Apocalypto. It’s been while since Gibson has sat in the director’s chair (roughly a decade since Apocalypto came out), but, after a long absence, he returns to bring the story of Desmond Doss to the big screen. With Robert Schenkkan and Andrew Knight penned the film’s script, Gibson frames the feature of Western spirituality (Christianity) and of Doss’s strong beliefs in his faith. There are some moments that go a bit heavy handed in dialogue and in symbolism, but, for the most part, Hacksaw Ridge doesn’t go overboard in its religious aspects and overtones. Like a lot of religious based movies, the film’s best moments (religiously speaking) are the small intimate moments between characters or just with Desmond’s own personal moments. As it was probably in real life, the events in Hacksaw Ridge are a true testament to the power human spirit and one’s own perseverance and the film captures that beautifully.
The first act is lighthearted, introducing to us (the viewers) to the character of respectable Desmond and his courtship with Dorothy. In conjunction, this first act also portrays Desmond’s home life, showing his first moral confliction in his youth as well as his dealings with his drunken and abusive father and his soon-to-be-shipped-out brother, adding to pressure and his soon-to-be decision to head to war. From there, Desmond undergoes basic training, falling “inline” with the stereotypical moments of war / military boot camp scenarios (i.e. the variety of soldier trainees, the loud drill sergeant, the training sequences). While a bit clichéd, it still worked and felt its own as Desmond is conflicted with what the army presents him with and what his moral judgement says to do. In truth, the film becomes a little bit of a military “courtroom” drama for a bit, which is pretty interesting to see playout. Even when the film enters the fray of battle by the third act, Gibson doesn’t lose sight of what’s important, which is the character of Desmond and the courageous and astounding act that he goes through to save the many lives that he did.
If you’re familiar with Apocalypto or The Passion of the Christ, then you probably know that Gibson is no stranger to violence and Hacksaw Ridge follows a similar path. By the film’s halfway point, the movie shifts to the battlefront in the taken of Hacksaw Ridge in Okinawa and it’s one of the hellish and brutal depictions in recent movie history. Guns are blazing, bombs are bursting, bodies are falling, and the carnage is elevated to its maximum level, swirling all around the character of Desmond Doss as he carefully navigates the battlefield. Think of the opening D-Day battle sequence in Saving Private Ryan (intense and bloody) and that’s what you get in the second half of Hacksaw Ridge. Personally, I loved it. My heart was racing and my intensity level was dialed up to 10! It definitely worked well to counterbalance the more lighthearted moments in the film’s first act. Gibson doesn’t “romance” the film’s war premise (this isn’t a kind-hearted History Channel presentation), but rather goes for dramatic realism of the decisive taking of the ridge and the complete nightmarish battle that takes place there. In short, this movie isn’t for the faint of heart, so if you’re queasy or uneasy about the dramatic portrayals of war, violence, and blood, then Hacksaw Ridge might not be towards your liking.
What’s also interesting (to me at least) is that I really didn’t know much about the story of Desmond Doss. I know that the taking of Iwo Jima and Okinawa were big and decisive battles during WWII, but I never heard about the events of Hacksaw Ridge and what Desmond Doss did. It was quite interesting to see how the story of Desmond’s journey plays out and without him ever firing a gun. Definitely a true American hero. As a side note, in terms of production / filmmaking goes, Hacksaw Ridge is presented as a well-crafted film. Costumes, production layout, and props and other movie nuances all feel appropriate to the film’s time period (1945). There’s a couple of cinematography shots that are worthy noting, thanks to cinematographer Simon Duggan and the films score (composed by Rupert Gregson Williams) is great with several swelling pieces that are heartfelt and uplifting.
Cast in the role of Desmond Doss is British Actor Andrew Garfield. The character of Desmond is very much the emotional centerpiece in Hacksaw Ridge and Garfield certainly does deliver enough charm, vulnerability, and passion to make the character a very likeable / relatable protagonist. Garfield, known for his role of Peter Parker in the Amazing Spider-Man films and as Eduardo Saverin in The Social Network, captures the spirit of Desmond, a humble man who stands by his spiritual beliefs, even though those around to don’t particular understand his moral principles. All in all, Garfield portrayal of Desmond is terrific and acts as the compelling anchor for the film. Acting as the romantic pairing to the character of Desmond is Dorothy Schutte, who is played by Teresa Palmer. While the character isn’t exactly new for the genre and does get push to the side towards the film’s third act (understandably so), Palmer still does fine her niche within Dorothy, making a believable connection with her and Garfield’s Desmond.
Perhaps the best supporting cast member in Hacksaw Ridge is Desmond’s father Tom Doss, played by actor Hugo Weaving. Weaving, who many will know him from his roles in The Matrix trilogy, Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth trilogies (The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit), and Captain America: The First Avenger, does a great job in the role of Tom, an abusive and broken man, who is haunted by the memories of his fallen friends, turning to alcohol to ease his pain. Weaving is a very good character actor and he part in Hacksaw Ridge is another fine addition to his body of work. If Weaving’s Tom was the best supporting player, then actor Vince Vaughn’s Howell is definitely the most surprising. Why you may ask? Well, that’s because Vaughn usually stars in a comedy feature rather than a dramatic period piece. His portrayal of Sergeant Howell fits him, providing some comedic bits here and there as the tough drill sergeant type (i.e. verbal hazing some of his new recruits) and does fair well (nothing grand) in the rest of the movie, when Hacksaw Ridge enters its more aggressive war phase. Avatar actor Sam Worthington plays Captain Glover, the superior to Vaughn’s Howell and of Desmond’s squad, and does a fine job in the role. It’s nothing new to the role of an army captain, but it suits Worthington well in that role. Lastly, Aussie actor Luke Bracey plays Smitty, Desmond’s alpha male tough guy fellow soldier. He definitely looks the part and, like Worthington, does well in that particularly role, even if that role isn’t anything new or original.
Perhaps my only negative criticism is (and it’s a minor one) is the multitude of side characters in Hacksaw Ridge. Beyond the ones I mentioned above (Palmer, Vaughn, Worthington, Weaving, Bracey), a lot of the various soldiers that area in Doss’s company are one-dimensional stock-like characters. I really didn’t expect them to be well-rounded supporting characters, but some (if not all) sort of blend into the background, especially when the movie heads to Okinawa. This includes characters Andy ‘Ghoul’ Walker (played by Goran D. Kleut), Vito Rinnelli (played by Firass Dirani), Randall “Teach” Fuller (played by Richard Pryos), and Milt ‘Hollywood’ Zane (played by Luke Pegler). I know there playing real-life characters, but these supporting members in Hacksaw Ridge are just there to filling the army soldier rank and file in the feature. Don’t get me wrong, there acting performances are not in question, its just they are “window dressing” for the feature. Lastly (another minor criticism) is that the movie never explains what happened to Desmond’s brother, Harold Doss (played by Nathaniel Buzolic), who enlisted in the war as well.
The titular powers of war, faith, and the power of courageous humanity collide in the movie Hacksaw Ridge. Mel Gibson return to the director’s chair with his newest war-bio pic drama, which dives into the crossfires of WWII, depicting a hellish ordeal through battle and survival. Yet, while there are some small minor problems here and there, the feature, underneath its war premise, is rooted in an incredible story of a person’s unwavering faith and the power of the human spirt. In addition, the movie was well-crafted and had collective group of talented actors (both in major and minor roles). Personally, I really liked this movie. It was a very interesting story and definitely held my interest and probably one of Gibson’s finest work to date. Just to reiterate again to what I said above, Hacksaw Ridge isn’t for the faint of heart. As for my recommendation, I would give a highly recommended stamp of approval. It’s just that good. While Hollywood will continue to return their cinematic lens to the various battlefields of WWII, showcasing the brutality of war and the valiant bravery and sacrifice of those who fought in it, Hacksaw Ridge is definitely one for the history books and in the film catalogue library of the war / military genre.
4.5 Out of 5 (Highly Recommended)
Released On: November 4th, 2016
Reviewed On: November 11th, 2016
Hacksaw Ridge is rated R for intense prolonged realistically graphic sequences of war violence including grisly bloody images