Filmmaker Mel Gibson has two obsessions: grisly violence and martyrdom. Hacksaw Ridge, his new World War II film, splits its 140 minutes between the two of them almost 50-50 (or 70-70). It's good, in a sturdy, muted, unsurprising way.
But as a platform for his directorial comeback after a decade in movie jail — let's just say the lull was entirely his own fault and leave it there — it's brilliant. It will appeal to the same heartland audiences that made American Sniper a giant hit, but it's not about a SEAL who claimed a historic number of kills in an unpopular war. It's about an Army medic who racked up an extraordinary tally of saves in the least controversial armed conflict in history.
If that distinction rubs you wrong, you'll have to take it up with Corporal Desmond T. Doss, one of a tiny handful of conscientious objectors ever awarded the Medal of Honor. And you can't: He died in 2006, aged 87 years.
But he was a young man when he joined the Army, four months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. A Seventh-Day Adventist, he refused to carry a weapon, or even train with one. That and his observance of the Sabbath made him a pariah in boot camp, and Hacksaw Ridge spends much of its second act dramatizing Doss's A Few Good Men-style harassment-and-worse by his fellow GIs. Though granted conscientious objector status, he felt obliged to serve — and not in a role that would keep him out of danger. Doss had already earned a Bronze Star for his service as a combat medic in 1944 prior to the remarkable episode to which Hacksaw Ridge jump-cuts in its second half, in the Battle of Okinawa in May 1945.
The particulars of Doss's heroism there sound like something from the New Testament: He repeatedly exposed himself to enemy fire to drag or carry wounded soldiers to cover. Each time he stabilized one patient, he'd lower him by rope down a "jagged escarpment" (a less saleable title than Hacksaw Ridge, evidently) to safety below, then go back for another. The Army said Doss rescued 75 men this way; Doss's own estimate put it closer to 50. His Medal of Honor citation goes on the describe several other instances when the 24-year-old PFC ignored his own safety to render aid to others in the weeks that followed. When he was struck by shrapnel and then (separately) broke his arm in battle, Doss tended to his own injuries rather than have another medic help him.
Who could possibly object to the veneration of such a person?
Only Doss, who by all accounts (including this movie) was a man whose humility went as deep as his piety. He showed up to accept his medal from President Harry S. Truman but resisted entreaties to publicize his heroism while he lived. Nothing about Gibson's reverent telling of Doss's story seven decades later is subtle, but not every story calls for subtlety. "This is Satan himself we're fighting," Doss's superiors tell him.
The film is structured, more or less, like Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket: The first half training and stateside strife; the second half, combat. In the first hour, Doss tangles with his father, a haunted WWI veteran with a violent temper, and courts a comely nurse. When Doss refuses to be drummed out of basic training, the Army tries to court martial him. The deus ex machina that ends his trial may be true to history — I haven't been able to find out — but it still feels hokey.
There's a lot of that in this film. The soft Rockwellian glow of Americana that animates its first half may be too syrupy for some; the body-mangling mayhem of its combat sequences too nauseating for others. The initial script was by All the Way playwright Robert Schenkkan, though Gibson brought in Australian screenwriter Andrew Knight to rework it. Almost every line of dialogue consists of a character saying exactly what he's thinking. As is weirdly often the case in movies about American fighting men, most of it is spoken by Australians. (The roles of Virginia and Okinawa, meanwhile, are played by Sydney and New South Wales. )
Dewey-eyed Andrew Garfield, aka the Amazingly Quickly Deposed Spider-Man, plays Doss. There's less wildness in his him, and less sexiness, than a Jim Caviezel or a, whatshisname, Mel Gibson might once have brought to the part. The role of a pacifist zealot suits him. Australian Hugo Weaving plays his haunted dad, Australian Rachel Griffiths his silently suffering mom, Australian Teresa Palmer his faithful gal, Australians Sam Worthington and Luke Bracey play fellow soldiers who hound him until he earns their respect. (The movie pauses to let both Worthington's and Bracey's characters apologize to Doss for calling him a coward, separately, and at length.) No performance is less than competent, but Gibson seems to have warned everyone never to upstage Garfield, even for a moment.
Vince Vaughn, the token Yankee, does noble work as the an archetypically hard-assed sergeant who develops a grudging respect for Doss's integrity even before Doss proves himself under fire. Vaughn has always looked and sounded like he could've been in movies in the 1940s, which is might be why lines like "We're not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy!" sit more naturally in his mouth than in others'. (The Wizard of Oz would've been newer to Vaughn's character than Avatar is to us, so maybe a 40-year-old sergeant in the 1st Battalion of the 307th Infantry would quote it, who knows.)
The footage of combat in Okinawa that opens the picture is dampened — even images of frail bodies caught in the blast of a flamethrower are presented at a remove, slow-motion, balletic. When we return to the Pacific 75 minutes later, Gibson dials up the carnage, delivering an extended battle scene that recalls Saving Private Ryan's Omaha Beach landing in its viciousness. (On Braveheart's DVD commentary, Gibson says he found it "flattering" that Spielberg borrowed some of the camera tricks he experimented with on that picture — rapid shifting among film speeds, selective removal of frames to make scenes of violence more disorienting — for Private Ryan three years later.) It's horror-movie stuff: Pelvises blasted apart from spinal columns. Gloopy red chunks of exposed muscle.
This too seems deliberate and correct. Right up until that point, Hacksaw Ridge is a staid and honorable tribute to a staid and honorable man. If this grueling election year hasn't completely cauterized your ability to recognize virtue, you'll find much to admire in it.