Hacksaw Ridge, Mel Gibson’s film about the bravery of World War II medic Desmond Doss during the Battle of Okinawa, is an extraordinary film and a massive Rorschach test. This is Gibson’s return to directing after his monumental success with The Passion of the Christ and his next film, the bloody and controversial Apocalypto, released a full decade ago. It’s doubtful you’ll read any review or analysis of the film that isn’t somehow informed by the writer’s personal view of Gibson, his politics and his outbursts.
But as for the film itself…. This is a marvelously crafted, violent film in the model of Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper, but with a broader range of sensibilities, emotions, and gore. While Eastwood can make a film with a single focus and tone throughout, Gibson prefers to run the gamut of looks and tones, which in this case, serves the goals of the film rather well.
Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) was a real-life person of serious Christian faith–in his case, a Seventh-Day Adventist and pacifist. Gibson, as shown in The Passion of the Christ and here with Hacksaw Ridge, is able to present personal faith clearly and intelligently, and without irony or condescension. Outside of “Christian films,” most of which come nowhere near the level of craftsmanship here, that is a rarity in films. (More on that later.)
The film gives place to his beliefs, and while not endorsing them, at least acknowledges that this man believes what he believes, and those beliefs are a determining aspect of his thoughts and actions. What is especially refreshing and lifelike are the “What about…” questions that come in serious conversations with Doss about his personal faith. The script, as Casablanca’s script allows us to learn more about Rick (Bogart) through his many conversations in the early part of the film, brings forth the most logical questions that a commanding officer or fellow serviceman might have for a man like Doss. For some questions, Doss has answers that are well expressed. To other questions, he doesn’t have an answer. We don’t get a calm, otherworldly, slightly disconnected smile accompanied by angelic choruses, and neither do we have the proud intellectual putting the religious rube in his place. We have a real person who really believes, and can express it clearly.
Many have noted that there are two films here, or at least two distinct parts. The first is perhaps a little too sun-dappled and idyllic. Doss’ childhood was difficult, as his father was an angry alcoholic who wasn’t above physical abuse. But the tone of the first half, while not completely Andy Hardy, might have a bit too much warmth and honeyed at times. Gibson was obviously going for contrast, however, as the second part—Doss’ time in the military—goes from difficult to rough to tough to shockingly violent and gory.
Doss’ early days with his fellow servicemen is the rough to tough part. His refusal to pick up a gun creates all kinds of reactions, judgments and confusion, but this portion of the film helps establish and ultimately clarify the character’s focused convictions. He wants to be a medic, and he wants to save as many lives as he can in the service of this country. The strange thing, to his fellow servicemen and the officers, is that he really means it—all of it.
Once we get to the site of Doss’ greatest expression of bravery—at Hacksaw Ridge—we descend into hell. (There is even a shot of Doss moving from foreground to background through fire and smoke, and is one of cinema’s best visual analogies for choosing to go to hell to save others.) The entire long sequence makes the first half-hour of Saving Private Ryan look like The Hunger Games. We as viewers experience the chaos, the brutality, and the intensity of a violent battle, and the carnage is relentless and brutal. There is a line in films where the visualization of an experience no longer supports but actually distracts from the viewer’s experience of it. Whether or not the shooting and slaughter pulls one in or pulls one out is a personal experience, and individual viewers may differ wildly on the effect of those images and sounds on their experience. Either way, the sequence is harrowing and intense, and a fitting background for the beauty of faith and self-sacrifice that Doss demonstrates.
Andrew Garfield (The Social Network, The Amazing Spider-Man), between this film and Scorsese’s upcoming Silence, has run himself through the ringer these past couple of years with two physically and emotionally demanding performances. Once a rather sweet and even “cute” presence in his films, he has graduated into manhood here with a solid, physical yet soulful performance. His eyes are as expressive as those of Claire Foy in this year’s Netflix series The Crown, which seemed to set a new standard for acting behind the eyes. Garfield gives an actor’s complete performance, from the silent to the action-filled, from the soft to the loud. There is a great deal of weight a film like this puts on its lead’s shoulders, and Garfield shoulders the burden fully.
Side note: Other countries often (rightly) complain when an American gets a role that “ought” to go to that country’s actor or actress (I’m thinking all the way back to Louise Brooks in G.W. Pabst’s 1929 Pandora’s Box). Here it’s the opposite case. Aussie Gibson is telling an American story with Garfield (British mother), playing a man with Hugo Weaving (born in Nigeria of British parents, and spent much of his youth in Australia) as father, and Aussie Rachel Griffiths playing his mother. Once in the service, his captain is played by Brit Sam Worthington, and his closest enemy that turns into his friend is played by Aussie Luke Bracey. Even Doss’ girlfriend, a younger version of Rachel McAdams known as Teresa Palmer, is Australian. Were there no Americans available (he asked with tongue firmly in cheek)?
Hacksaw Ridge will likely be remembered for its central performance and incredibly visceral battle scenes. But perhaps its greatest achievement aside from its directorial skill and artistry is its unblinking and clear-eyed representation of faith on the screen. The reason for the more traditional false or distorted presentation of faith in cinema is that there isn’t a place in the minds and hearts and worldviews of many creatives in the film industry where true, un-hypocritical, non-psychotic faith can find a home, be understood, and therefore, be represented. In far too many films, faith is judged, not understood, and certainly not honored. To too many, religious faith can only be legalism, hypocrisy, or an expression of psychosis. (It can be exhausting for a person of faith to see real belief in God be so misrepresented time and again.) There is clearly some real animosity toward faith on the part of some, but generally, it’s just that a person’s worldview often can’t allow for its legitimacy in either their world or in the world they’re working to put on screen.
Lastly, the person of Mel Gibson will long be a factor in how people—and critics—view the film. It’s impossible to deny the talent behind the camera here, no matter what one’s view on either faith or violence or the director. But for a long time, this will be seen through the lens of the man who drunkenly spouted anti-Semitic rantings and who clearly has personal issues that erupt from time to time. If he were of another political persuasion or had no religion, those rantings would—rightly or wrongly—likely be long forgiven and long forgotten. Yet, still, in the art world, talent finally wins. And while most folks writing about this film in the future will see it, in time, for what it is—his well done, moving, complex, comeback film.