by TYLER YORK//Online Editor
War isn’t always about gunning down as many enemies as possible. But that idea is rarely expressed in film.
It seems these days that war movies are endlessly cresting the horizon, ready to be cycled out and replaced by the next gritty story of a hero’s triumph over adversity and the horrors of battle. War movies can almost be considered their own cinematic ecosystem, filled with tropes and predefined systems for displaying the hero’s courage, learning to prove his worth to his combat brothers, and ultimately taking down the bad guys before waving a flag over the destruction just to remind the audience they should be filled with patriotism when shown what an impressive spectacle war can be.
“Hacksaw Ridge” is different from the outset. It isn’t content to be just another war story, and it doesn’t conform only to action movie tendencies either. It is truly unique in its tale of unwaveringly standing up for one’s beliefs in the face of mockery and abuse—even from those sworn to be protectors on the front lines.
The film follows a man named Desmond Doss, played with great care by Andrew Garfield, and the true story of the events that stemmed from his enlistment in the United States Army near the end of World War II. Doss was raised a Seventh-day Adventist, which, combined with another particularly traumatic experience in his youth, reinforces his idea that killing, under any circumstance, is absolutely morally wrong.
This extended to his military training as well, as he refused to even touch a rifle in his basic training. So even though Doss willfully enlisted in the Army to serve and help protect his fellow men as a combat medic, his religious values caused him to be labeled a “conscientious objector”—meaning his actions were seen as refusing to fully perform his duties due to ideological reasons.
A long struggle ensues between Doss and his superiors, with the latter using every method they can devise to first try to remove him from the Army, and, when that fails, attempting to force him to quit through indirect abuse, at one point even resulting in a nighttime beating received from members of his unit.
The story of Doss’ accomplishment in such a hostile environment is remarkable, especially when you know going into the film that the real-life Doss was the first conscientious objector to ever receive the Medal of Honor, the highest honor awarded in the U.S. military.
After seeing the movie, it’s strangely difficult to believe that it lingered in “development hell”—an industry term for a project that flounders between crews, scripts, or studios without making progress—for nearly 14 years. A documentary about Doss’ life was completed in 2004, titled “The Conscientious Objector,” and that film was the springboard for a dramatic version of the events to finally come to fruition. It’s clear the shocking reality of Doss’ vivid account of his war experience is present throughout the film.
The combat sequences are stark, bleak, and comprised mainly of scorched blacks and grays. This muted palette means the intense moments of gunfire and blazing flamethrower blasts feel greatly amplified, thrusting the viewer into the moment with Doss, feeling exposed and helpless with nothing for defense but the hope that his brothers will cover him.
One distracting element that pokes unfortunate holes in the otherwise gripping story is a few scattered—and seemingly unnecessary—uses of computer-generated imagery rather than a real-life approximation. These moments are thankfully sparse. But when an actor moves out of sync across an obviously fabricated background, these clips offer no perceived benefit of being digitally constructed other than an assumed smaller hit to the production’s budget.
Among its many other successes, “Hacksaw Ridge” seems to be a major industry homecoming for director Mel Gibson, with more than a decade between his last directing credit and this one. His talent for gracefully combining violence with religious imagery and ideas is clearly quite strong, as shown in past directorial work such as “The Passion of the Christ” and “Apocalypto.”
Though seemingly unlikely at first, Vince Vaughn’s role as Doss’ sergeant was brilliant casting. Vaughn is able to easily flex his ability in trademark comic relief, in addition to a dramatic severity that shows a great capacity for depth many may not have seen from him before.
But the shining star is obviously Garfield’s Doss. The character is at once humble and stoic, agreeable and unrelenting. The light touch with which Garfield lays out Doss’ simple nature and endearing resolve is astonishing, and Garfield deservedly received a Best Actor nomination for the role.
Garfield’s performance, combined with the film’s record with previous award ceremonies this year, meant the Academy Awards’ Best Picture nomination for “Hacksaw Ridge” was certainly unsurprising. With 29 wins and a hearty 76 nominations across a plethora of award categories and organizations, “Hacksaw Ridge” clearly holds a special place with critics and audiences alike. Unfortunately, it seems its power wasn’t quite enough to overcome its flaws in the eyes of the Academy, and it was edged out for Best Picture. If “Hacksaw Ridge” had to lose Best Picture, it would be difficult to pick a better opponent than the amazingly well told story that is Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight.”
The story of Desmond Doss has been told before, and may be told again. This telling does come with a few technical blemishes that affect the otherwise excellent impact of the overall story. But the strength with which “Hacksaw Ridge” celebrates Doss’ dedication to personal convictions without glorifying violence is extraordinary in a way that no other war film I’ve ever seen has managed to achieve.
I give “Hacksaw Ridge” 4.5 out of 5 stars.