Mel Gibson returns to directing greatness with the powerfully moving Hacksaw Ridge. It is the fascinating true story of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), the first Conscientious Objector to win the Medal of Honor; the highest commendation in the U.S. military. This film is horrifying in its depiction of war. The Battle of Okinawa is unfiltered carnage, an ultra-realistic slaughter that will shock the most jaded of audiences. Against this bloodbath we see the triumph of values and faith; where a man's heroism is judged by the lives he saved, not the enemy killed.
Desmond Doss was a deeply religious country boy from the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. His alcoholic father (Hugo Weaving) suffered tremendous PTSD from his service in World War I. When Doss came of age in World War II, he and his brother (Nathaniel Buzolic) enlisted against his father's wishes. Doss volunteered as a conscientious objector. He refused to carry a weapon or train in firearms. This stance enraged his commanding officers (Vince Vaughn, Sam Worthington). Doss suffered mightily for his faith. But against all odds, he found himself in the darkest pit of hellish combat.
Gibson's portrayal of Doss begins from his early days as a child. A significant portion of Hacksaw Ridge is spent on the development of his pacifist beliefs. These scenes are equally as effective as the butchery in the second half of the film. His Seventh Day Adventist faith was the core of his being. Even as a youth, he recognized the Ten Commandments as intractable principles. Most war films are gunning to show you the fight. Hacksaw Ridge builds up to it brilliantly. Gibson wants the audience to truly understand Desmond Doss. He was a unique person of extraordinary character.
Andrew Garfield will be a strong contender for the Best Actor Oscar. He plays Doss with a boyish charm and remarkable force of will. Doss remarks that he never had much 'schooling', but that doesn't mean he wasn't a deeply introspective thinker. He was measured in everything he did, except his head over heels infatuation with Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer) and his religious convictions. Garfield delivers a sublimely nuanced performance, his best in an already distinguished young career.
The battle scenes in Hacksaw Ridge make Saving Private Ryan look tame in comparison. It's exceptionally gruesome and chaotic. The Japanese fought to the death, by any means necessary, in a stark setting. Gibson excels at staging action that shows humanity at its worst. From Braveheart to Apocalypto, he takes the kid gloves off depicting savagery. This approach would be effective regardless, but it is even more so here. To think that Doss ran headfirst into the grinder without a weapon, or thought of his own life, to save as many people as possible. Mel Gibson, in the midst of reeking death and depravity, shines a light on the best attributes of man.
The dichotomy of a pacifist volunteering for war seems irreconcilable. Hacksaw Ridge is a parable of how values can keep you strong in the worst of places. Desmond Doss stuck to his faith under extreme duress. Because of those beliefs, dozens of men survived the unthinkable. Hacksaw Ridge honors Doss and those who fought without glorification. With Hacksaw Ridge arriving from Summit Entertainment, Mel Gibson has made a superb film.