Hacksaw Ridge

December, 2016, Drama

Mel Gibson has been something of a pariah in Hollywood of late, following a series of incidents in recent years involving bigoted comments, drunk driving and adding to already long list of children, the latest of which arrived out of wedlock.

But this remarkable (and largely unembellished) story of the only conscientious objector to ever win The Congressional Medal of Honor may well pave Gibson’s way back to A-list status. Featuring an Oscar-nominated performance by Andrew Garfield, Gibson’s movie has garnered a handful of other nominations, notably those for best director and best film.

Hacksaw celebrates the heroism and moral convictions of Desmond Dodd, a quiet-spoken Virginian whose desire to service in the army in WWII without touching a gun earned him vicious hazing during boot camp and a near court martial before he was transferred to the medical corps and rejoined his unit just as the battle for Okinawa was shaping up as perhaps the most brutal battle in The South Pacific.

Gibson opens his movie with jaw-dropping scenes of violence, which drench the audience in stomach-turning scenes brilliantly edited by well-known cinematographer Simon Duggan to evoke the pitiless and random scope of pitched battles. Having established its theme in these opening images of horrific brutality, Hacksaw spends more than half of the film’s 132-minute running time tracing the boyhood and early adulthood of its principal character, tracing the violence and drunkenness of his father, his close friendship with his older brother and especially his soft-spoken mother whose dedication to the commandment “Thou Shalt Not Kill” became young Desmond’s mantra. Yet his religious beliefs also included a deep dedication to his country that compelled him to leave a defense industry job (where he was free of the draft) for a chance to serve his country in battle.

The astounding fruits of his heroism are presented in the nail-biting savagery of the film’s last reel, as Doss tended to the wounded at continuous risk of his own life. For personally saving the lives of between 50 and 100 men under ferocious circumstances, President Truman awarded him America’s highest honor.

Gibson’s work behind the camera  (Braveheart, 1995, The Passionof the Christ, 2004 & Apocalypto, 2006 are long on brutal imaginary and short on subtlety, but Andrew Garfield’s performance as a shyly attractive, principled man bears favorable comparison to Gary Cooper’s portrayal of a similar WW I hero in Sargent York and it’s a credit to both director and actor here that Doss’ character gets full and fair treatment on both his laudable actions as well as his dedication to the principles by which he lived his life up to that remarkable day when he seemed to be everywhere in the midst of horrific carnage.

Well, horrific it was - - and that portion of Hacksaw shows Gibson at his best or worse, depending upon your point of view about the appropriateness of presenting explicit violence to audiences. It’s stomach-turning in spades; decapitations, arms legs instantly turned into bloody stumps, arbitrary death delivered to men in such an aimless and brutal fashion one’s reaction can only be that of abhorrence. But in this case, Gibson’s decision to present these images of such casual slaughter are not only historically accurate, but essential to a proper framing of Doss’ singular heroism.

Duggan’s camerawork blends seamlessly with the sound editing and sound mixing that led to Oscar nominations in those categories, the visual images made nearly pornographic by the cornucopia of sounds that accompanied the carnage. Gibson has produced the best presentation of military battle since Saving Private Ryan and this movie arguably presents its hellish content with more artistic artistry.

Hacksaw’s cast includes only a few familiar faces; Sam Worthington of Avatar fame and a solid, no-nonsense performance by Vince Vaughn as the sergeant who berates Doss for being a coward before seeing him in action.

Gibson can’t resist a few sentimental images designed to pull at the heartstrings, but none of them dilute the integrity of this passionate depiction of a quiet, simple man of extraordinary bravery and exceptional moral conviction.

The Verdict? Appropriately gory at some length, but a stunning return to form for Gibson and a great career boost to Garfield.

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