“Hacksaw Ridge”*

First, let’s dispatch the 800-lb invisible gorilla in the middle of the room: Should we pay to view this film and thus benefit director Mel Gibson?

That discussion is far-outside the scope of this review.

Besides, as to the answer, this writer has not a clue. And this writer hates the word, “should”, anyway.

 

Now, back to the film.

So refreshing: this film is not perhaps-anticipated hagiography. Neither– again, as might be anticipated– does this film demonize soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Army. For this objectivity, among other things, the artists are to be commended.

The audience likely already knows the story, and the paradox at its heart. Nonetheless, let’s recap: the grip of world war reaches even the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Here, a young working man, Desmond Doss. He is not a saint.  He is simply human.  Doss is “Average Joe”– average with but one possible exception–  he simply is incapable of allowing his actions to compromise his beliefs.

The first belief at hand: ironclad-adherence to the Sixth Commandment of the Hebrews:

“Thou shalt not kill”.

His second, likewise-ironclad, conviction: in this time and place of madness:

Doss owes military-service to humanity and his nation.

Doss can be categorized as a “Conscientious Objector”. Yet, he is in the Army.

Doss is incapable of even touching a weapon. He is not noble; rather, his motives may seem base:  fear.  First, fear not of pain or death, but fear of the state of his soul. Also he may fear what he might do with a weapon, a fear well-learned through dangerous adolescent experiences.

Neither, as might be expected, is Doss arrogant, or insistent others share his principles. For Doss, these principles are his and his alone. Doss is humble. These complex aspects of Doss, their portrayal, set the bar high for an actor. Yet, Andrew Garfield’s excellent work clears that bar and makes it look easy.

Again, the audience likely already knows the story, so what of the element of suspense?  This often is done with some conceit, all-too-often fabricated. Not here.

Rather, the artists use the “slow-burn” technique to maximum-effect:  anticipation gradually builds into great suspense…but lingers there. Then, at that very moment the viewer may wonder, “It is combat. Doss serves diligently and effectively. Such service is to be expected. So, where are the outstanding Medal-of-Honor actions?”, the artists squeeze the trigger.

And the screen is cast into a nightmare. It is a nightmare of enormous challenge and risk, perseverance, back-breaking work, ingenuity, and action necessary in spite of one’s fears. In the viewer’s heart and mind, this nightmare may evoke incredulity.  That condition will linger. It will linger through and after the excellent denouement imperative for a harrowing glimpse of such brutality as well as nerve. Again, for the persuasive, and authentic-feeling, climax of a factual story, the artists are to be commended.

The portrayals of violence and resulting carnage are appropriate and necessary to support the story. Never are they gratuitous.

Oh. How did a conscientious objector manage to enlist in the Army, during war, in the first place? And what would he do in the Army, during war?

For answers, the reader simply must view the film.

Special commendation: supporting actor Hugo Weaving. Weaving’s character– Tom Doss, father of Desmond– fought in the worst of “The Great War” (what we call, World War I). That war, decades later, never ended within Tom’s soul: thus, he is continually-consumed by terrifying memories, survivor’s guilt, bereavement, anger, inner-conflict about his son’s insistence on military service, and what today we call, “PTSD”. To drown these demons, Tom Doss with regularity– and, of course, futility– consumes excess alcohol. Yet, not once does Tom Doss evince self-pity. He does manage to resolve his inner-conflict about his son’s insistence on military service. And then, Tom takes action upon that resolution. Weaving’s portrayal of that action crowns a remarkably-nuanced and persuasive portrayal of the complex aspects, and actions, of Tom Doss. Weaving’s work transcends continents, dialect, time itself. It feels utterly-authentic. Of this, the reader may be assured: this writer’s adolescence likewise was in the Appalachian Mountains, and this writer has some familiarity with this futile method of trying to drown demons.

“Hacksaw Ridge” is a great success. Kudos to all participants.

 

Ratings:

  • for armchair-historians who don’t faint at the repulsive sight of the results of brutality, “Buy.”
  • for others who don’t faint at the repulsive sight of the results of brutality, “Rent.”
  • for those who faint at even the thought of blood, this writer’s recommendation: watch “Little Mermaid”. Again.

*© 2016 Lionsgate Films