HACKSAW RIDGE is Mel Gibson's re-telling of the true story of Desmond Doss, a deeply religious US soldier who fought in the Pacific against the Japanese and won his country's highest military honour despite being a conscientious objector. Doss refused to hold or fire a weapon but went into battle as a combat medic. And when his company was forced to retreat in ignominious circumstances, he stayed on top of Hacksaw Ridge and single-handedly rescued over seventy men. He attributed his success and his survival to his faith, and overturned the prejudices of the men who thought him a coward.
It's easy to see why such material would appeal to Mel Gibson, a man whose faith is a quite extreme version of Catholicism, and whose films are obsessed with a close-up and cloying depiction of violence. What Gibson isn't interested in are female characters or emotional nuance. The result is a film, with a script by Robert Schenkkan (THE PACIFIC) and Andrew Knight (THE WATER DIVINER) that is heavy-handed, emotionally manipulative, and full of cliches and cheesy dialogue, and yet despite all this contains moments of great power and tragedy.
The first half of the film is a kind of PRIVATE BENJAMIN slash FORREST GUMP remake but with Andrew Garfield (THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN) cast as a kind of goofy simpleton. He just wants to marry his gorgeous nurse sweetheart and protect his fellow soldiers in war despite his objections to holding a gun. We learn in flashback that this stems partly from a backyard scrap with his brother that nearly killed him, but also the example of seeing his father, traumatised by his experience of World War One, turn into a violent alcoholic. In this section, Vince Vaughn gets to do his usual comedy schtick as the fast-talking mean Sergeant who wants to bully Doss out of the army. Poor Teresa Palmer gets nothing to do as Doss' girlfriend except to look pretty and angelic and to be utterly supportive. Indeed the only moment of real cinematic value is Hugo Weaving, who with his portrayal of the tortured ex soldier Papa Doss seems to be acting in another film entirely.
The movie really takes off when we switch from sepia tinted small-town Virginia to the Pacific beach where Doss and his company are told to Scale That Wall and Capture That Trench. We move quickly into Gibson's trademark brutal violence and into Doss' heroics, and that takes us to the film's close. It's easy to mock Gibson's brutal style as a kind of war-porn but I'm not sure it's reprehensible at all. Maybe we SHOULD see the horrific violence that war entails. Maybe it's the films that sugarcoat and obscure the images of men having their legs torn off that are reprehensible. I actually found the depiction of battle (apparently shot in Australia with a lot of smoke machines and sleight of hand) highly effective and rightly disturbing. Where the movie was harder to take was in its overtly Christian imagery of Doss being washed of the blood of battle, backlit by the sun, or in the cheesy moment where he is stretchered off the ridge, and asks for someone to go back for his Bible. And I say that as a Catholic!
Which is not to say that HACKSAW RIDGE doesn't work - I was moved to tears by Weaving, laughed out loud at Vaughn. But I felt that Garfield was portraying a character so good as to be banal. I can't help but feel that when Gibson shows us footage of the real Doss at the end of the film it's acknowledging our doubts that these too good to be true heroics actually happened. And yet they did. And so, on balance, I think this is not just a powerful film, despite its shortcomings, but it's actually necessary. It's necessary in these times where warmongering rhetoric is on the rise, to realise the desperate human cost of warfare but also that heroes can sometimes be real men, not superheroes, who find the courage not to hold a gun.
HACKSAW RIDGE has a running time of 139 minutes and is rated R. The film played Venice 2016 and is on global release everywhere except Italy where it opens on February 9th and the Philippines where it opens on February 22nd.