2016. Directed by Mel Gibson.
Gibson returns to directorial splendor with a surprisingly candid rumination on the power of conviction. Despite an overuse of CGI and a shallow script, Andrew Garfield's stellar performance and some intense camera work by Simon Duggan brings Hacksaw Ridge down to the battlefield level, depicting a miraculous display of heroism in the face of unthinkable danger as a candid gesture of personal faith.
Desmond Doss is a conscientious objector who enlists in the Army during World War Two with the intention of being a combat medic. His refusal to take up arms earns him the ire of his comrades and the disapproval of his superiors. Despite claims of cowardice and harsh abuse, Doss remains steadfast in his beliefs, putting him in harms way during the battle of Hacksaw Ridge. When his unit is forced to retreat under heavy artillery cover, Doss remains on the ridge, evading the enemy and bringing 75 souls to safety without ever firing a shot, an act that would make him one of three non combatants to receive the congressional medal of honor for his bravery.
Simon Duggan's cinematography is gripping and elastic, framing wide shots of the carnage that portrays the depravity of battle with a sense of ordered chaos and then quietly returning to the individual interactions in between the onslaughts. There are some gorgeous scenes in which light refracts over Garfield that give him a mythical quality, echoed in the way the troops respond to him after the eponymous act, with one of the best being a sequence in which Doss is doused with water, washing the death and sorrow from him in a pseudo baptism. It would be easy to scoff at the religious and patriotic ramifications of this film, but one of things that makes it special is its refusal to engage in such arguments. Even his fellow soldiers think Doss is unhinged, his religious beliefs most certainly damning him to a painful demise. The film stays focused on the eventuality of Doss's faith coming into contact with the of scourge war and thankfully stays there without preaching.
This is a story about the power of belief and staying true to oneself, and while the enemy is sadly depicted as suicidal savages, the patriotic agenda is quickly pushed aside in favor of concentrating on the definition of courage and the foundation of personal ethics. Garfield's Doss's constant mantra of "Please god, let me get one more" becomes an anthem that no viewer can deny, silently joining in the prayers of an innocent who is desperately trying to find meaning in a world gone mad. The bulk of the combat narrative focuses on the idea that personal freedom is the most important thing worth fighting for (or not) and it pushes this concept to the very end of the film, with an odd addition of a final battle that bears no real impact on the story.
Garfield gives a wonderfully simplistic take. While there are cliched scenes that are present in virtually every war film, Doss is an enigmatic character who surprises with his vulnerability and natural bravery. He's supported by a cardboard cut out group of brethren, but the stereotypes evaporate once the bullets start flying. The battle scenes are terrific, with scorched landscapes and patchwork graves littering the field of vision while soldiers acrobatically tumble through the smoke.
Gibson's tight direction doesn't show up until the titular battle, with the story limping through the war film tropes of basic training and overcoming bullying and adversity. There are lines and sequences lifted from Full Metal Jacket, but these transgressions are instantly forgotten as the soldiers begin their climb to the ridge. A major flaw is how the use of CGI dampens the drama, coming at the worst possible times, but the synthetic misfires are overshadowed by the sheer scope Doss's one man crusade. It's terrifying, awkward, and relentless, perfectly emulating the unknowable horrors that our armed forces confront every day.
Debuting this Friday in American cinemas, Hacksaw Ridge doesn't reinvent the genre, and one could argue it plays things extremely safe, but in the capable hands of Mel Gibson, the final product is an uplifting reminder that one person can truly make a difference, even in the face of unspeakable darkness.