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Review: Hacksaw Ridge (2016)

Hacksaw Ridge (2016)

Directed by: Mel Gibson

Premise: Based on a true story. Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) enlists in the military during World War II. But his religious beliefs prevent him from killing or holding a weapon which puts Doss at odds with his fellow soldiers.

What Works: Hacksaw Ridge was directed by Mel Gibson and it fits neatly within the kind of movies that he does well. Of Gibson’s films, Hacksaw Ridge echoes both Braveheart and The Passion of the Christ. Like Braveheart, this is the story of a populist hero who enters into war with elevated motives and a clear cut sense of justice. And like The Passion of the Christ, Hacksaw Ridge impacts the viewer in a visceral way; the combat sequences are violent and horrifically gory but they are also staged and photographed in a way that is strangely beautiful. Hacksaw Ridge also parallels The Passion of the Christ in its religious content. This film has an unmistakable Christian subtext and in many respects it is more effective at delivering a religious message than so many pandering faith-based titles like God’s Not Dead and War Room. Hacksaw Ridge does the going-to-war formula pretty well. It follows the format seen in everything from Stripes to Full Metal Jacket to American Sniper in which the lead character answers the call, goes to training camp, and eventually serves in battle with a group of diverse soldiers. Hacksaw Ridge does not reinvent the going-to-war movie but it carries out the tropes in a way that will satisfy fans of the genre and it captures the brothers-in-arms camaraderie that is  the core appeal of so many of these films. Hacksaw Ridge is led by Andrew Garfield in the role of Desmond Doss and Garfield is quite good here. As presented in the movie, Doss is a likable guy with pure intentions and who was willing to suffer for what he believed. Garfield and the filmmakers do an effective job of presenting his struggle in a way that is emotionally involving. The last third of the picture takes place on Okinawa as American troops attempt to take the island and the battle scenes are as good as anything else in the war genre. 

What Doesn’t: All dramatizations require some flexibility with the facts but Hacksaw Ridge makes one very critical change. In real life, Desmond Doss was drafted into the military but in the film he enlists. That is an important distinction because Doss’ enlistment is critical to his appeal as a character. As the film portrays it, Doss felt compelled to join the military out of a sense of duty. This is a strategic decision by the filmmakers to put the audience on Doss’ side and it works. As a dramatic character, Doss is defined by a deep sense of righteousness and duty and he suffers for his convictions. To be fair, the real life Doss had the option of taking a deferment or spending time in a conscientious objector camp but he refused because he wanted to be in the field. But nevertheless the film does manufacture an important part of this story. As a movie in which the central character’s integrity is at stake, Hacksaw Ridge presents a simpleminded view of what it means for someone to stand by his or her principles. The movie uncritically accepts nonviolence as a virtuous position and Doss is framed as someone who embodies grace. But he’s only able to take what the film regards as the moral high ground because his fellow soldiers are willing to take the “lower” moral path of killing their enemies. There is an unstated problem here; if everyone lived up to Doss’ virtues then America would lose the war. And further, there is the question of whether pacifism is even a morally valid position to take in the face of the Axis threat. Hacksaw Ridge takes its conflicts at face value and so it misses the nuances and implications of its story.  

Bottom Line: Hacksaw Ridge is a fine movie. It is simpleminded in its understanding of the themes of this story but it works on a visceral level and effectively taps into our ideals and what we admire most about those who choose military service.

Episode: #621 (November 13, 2016)