Hacksaw Ridge (*****) So many ways to serve

hacksaw-ridge

Hacksaw Ridge – 2016

Director Mel Gibson
Screenplay by Andrew Knight, Robert Schenkkan
Starring Andrew Garfield, Sam Worthington, Luke Bracey, Teresa Palmer, Hugo Weaving, Rachel Griffiths, Vince Vaughn

There are very few war films I have seen that are this violent: the opening of Saving Private Ryan comes to mind. If ever one wanted to show the horror and glory in war, Mel Gibson has done it. In telling the story of Desmond Doss, a 7th Day Adventist who served with distinction in the Second World War, we see a glorious example of serving God and man without short shifting either.

Gibson’s style is at once simple and grand, gentle and wretched. I can’t recall the last time I saw such straightforward characterizations. The men on the screen are at once distinct and of their time.They border on parody when we first meet them, until one realizes that Americans in World War II has considerably less comfortable cynicism than we enjoy today.

Then there is Doss, who would seem peculiar at any time in history. He’s enthusiastic, optimistic and dedicated to honoring God and his country at once. These things converge for him in  a way different from most. He wants to serve America by being a medic, but does not want to learn how to fire a weapon. The logic is sound even if religion were not involved. Why would a medic want to see anyone hurt?

Garfield is excellent at capturing the depth of a man who seems at peace with the fact that most of the world does not understand his perspective. He’s not an asshole about it either. If they ask, he explains it in simple terms because he thinks quite literally. He is no fool, but his enthusiasm reminds of one who is unencumbered by the rationalizations most people put for their version of understanding the Bible.

Since when did sound logic make anyone popular? Doss suffers immeasurably through boot camp, but he always keeps moving forward. This punishment is endorsed by his Sergeant Howell (Vaughn) and his Captain Glover (Worthington). While not inherently cruel men, they see it as a matter of life and death for the other men that someone on their side won’t pick up a gun to defend them. They don’t see defense in any other capacity or possibility. So myopic is our own perspective at times.

Gibson doesn’t handle the process of mind expansion with any amount of hugging and learning moments. There will be plenty of men who die not knowing the true value of having a peaceful warrior on their side. There are even some who marvel while he is helping them that Doss would also take the time to help injured enemy combatants. He see’s life as life. They see some as right and some as wrong. It’s a worthy achievement that in a story celebrating this man’s achievements Gibson is wise enough to show that some of them will not ever be valued by the people with whom Doss served.

Back to the violence. There are at least two ways to see a war film. Philosophically and realistically. Sometimes one way informs the other. Only by seeing how brutal and horrific the circumstances were can we understand the true bravery of all soldiers. We also are served as a warning to those who think War is something done “over there” with no consequence to most people. It’s one thing to understand war in an intellectual way. It’s another when you experience viscerally at the base level.

The detail that Gibson puts into the battle scenes is legendary. This is above the level even of Braveheart. The strange thing is, for all of the meticulous attention paid to every action above the ridge, the wig applied to Doss’ girl back home (Palmer) is laughably bad.It seems such an easy thing to get right comparatively.

That’s a small quibble though. This is a great film, if you can stomach something as graphic as The Passion of the Christ. It’s done in an equally sacred manner, if you value life. To see lives so easily lost, you will be more heartened to find a man running all through the night, praying for the strength to save “just one more.”

(***** out of *****)

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