Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Hacksaw Ridge: Peacefully Waging War

Hacksaw Ridge is a fine film that is elevated by a particularly wonderful performance by Andrew Garfield. It is a fairly standard biopic, but there is nothing standard about the individual it chooses to celebrate.

The film tells the story of Desmond Doss, a young man from Virginia who chose to enlist in World War II as a combat medic despite being a Seventh Day Adventist and strict pacifist. Naturally, this presents a challenge when he shows up at the Army and refuses to touch a gun. Desmond is subjected to abuse, ridicule, and bodily harm, and at one point his commanding officer tries to get him discharged via a Section 8 declaring him to be psychologically unsound. However, the psychiatrist declares there's nothing mentally wrong with the man, he is simply principled. It takes time, but eventually his unit and commander accept that they're going to have to go into battle with a medic who will not carry a weapon.

Their first assignment is the infamous Hacksaw Ridge in Japan, a bloody war zone that has resulted in massive American casualties. As they arrive they see dozens of wounded Americans being carted away, and it seems clear that this is going to be some kind of suicide mission. However, as with the Charge of the Light Brigade, theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die. They head into battle and what follows is a gruesome, violent spectacle that pulls no punches about the horrors of war. Director Mel Gibson is not eager to sanitize this experience for you - if you ever thought war was glamorous, you will certainly lose all illusions after a few minutes of watching the battles in this movie. Young soldiers are dispatched with terrifying casualness, and as the bodies pile up, you start to wonder when the "inspirational" portion of this movie will commence.

Thankfully, Desmond comes to the rescue and we get to see how he single-handedly saves over 75 men, solely using ingenuity and insane luck. This being a Mel Gibson film, the religious overtones are high, but Garfield is such a sincere and earnest actor that you don't mind the preachiness quite so much. Instead your heart is in your mouth watching him sprint across Hacksaw, doing his best to save his fellow soldiers and even some wounded Japanese, because after all, a medic doesn't ever pick sides in a war. The final moments when he is reunited with his unit and the full enormity of what he has experienced dawns on him are truly exceptional, and that was the moment I knew Garfield deserved an Oscar nomination.

Hacksaw Ridge is an inspirational movie about a true American hero. At the end it even features interviews with the people featured in the film, hammering home how true life is often far more wondrous than anything a screenwriter could make up for a movie. The movie isn't told in any particularly innovative fashion, but with a spectacular central performance from Garfield, it is a film worth watching. 

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