Overview: Real life World War II veteran Desmond Doss – the first conscientious objector to be awarded the Medal of Honor – serves as an American Army Medic during the Battle of Okinawa. Summit Entertainment; 2016; Rated R; 131 minutes.
Faith: Over the course of the first hour of Hacksaw Ridge, director Mel Gibson makes it clear that his latest biographical war drama will be another testament to his abiding faith in the Catholic Church and belief in the Christian God. Born out of trial and turmoil at home, Desmond Doss, played with remarkable compassion and humanitarian vulnerability by Andrew Garfield, grows up a devout member of the Seventh Day Adventist Church. What’s more, his faith in God becomes a cross that he bears with unrestrained zealotry and selfless abandon. Like The Passion of the Christ in 2004, Gibson’s latest directorial outpouring is one intellectually concerned with evangelical themes and missionary activism. Yet its messages about God are subtle enough that even the most jaded viewer can come away with their own convictions intact, which is the movie’s greatest – and perhaps most inadvertent – feat of viewer inclusivity.
Valor: After the first half of the film is over (which comes as a blessing after enduring several ham-fisted sequences of melodramatic scenes meant to establish a series of predominantly one-dimensional characters) the real meat of Hacksaw Ridge finally arrives. After suffering the torments of being labeled a coward by the US Army for refusing to engage in violence by his own hand, Desmond Doss reveals himself to be one of the bravest men to serve during the Battle of Okinawa. Tasked with aiding the wounded and getting the critically disabled to safety, Garfield thrives as an unlikely action movie hero. Despite never firing a single shot, Doss’ actions prove to be just as heroic and deserving of the Medal of Honor as many other recipients of the same award. After proving himself multiple times over while under fire, Doss’ actions of unparalleled valor make his story worthy of the likes of Saving Private Ryan.
Courage: There is certainly plenty of honor laid bare throughout Hacksaw Ridge, yet much of the film’s biggest moments come in the thick of gratuitous violence that feels hypothetical to some of the movie’s bigger and greater themes. Desmond Doss’ story is a fascinating interrogation into the distinction between religious dogma and humanitarian integrity. Doss’ conviction throughout is never false, yet a lot of that rejection of violence is thrown in stark contrast to Gibson’s obvious love for directing scenes of volatile-armed conflict. The same guy who made Braveheart is clearly at the helm of what could have been a far more restrained statement about the horrors of violence and the courage taken in refusing to take part in it. Doss obviously does not intend to beget violence. Nevertheless he is often the indirect recipient of a lot of cinematically fetishized set pieces that visually glorify the aesthetic majesty of violence.
Overall: Hacksaw Ridge might be among the most fascinating and ethically complicated World War II dramas of the past quarter century, despite its various shortcomings as a thematically sound morality play.
Featured Image: Summit Entertainment