Hacksaw Ridge (2016)

casey What if they threw a war and nobody came?
I have no idea, but Hacksaw Ridge answers the question “What if they threw a war and everybody came, except one guy who didn’t bring a gun and is also an incontrovertible badass?”

brooke I want to admit here and now that I wanted to dislike this movie because Mel Gibson is kind of a terrible human being, but dammit I really liked it.
And Andrew Garfield, I take back everything bad I thought about you in Silence.
Oh, and also Vince Vaughn is there, which I found entertaining because it made me think of Dodgeball.

casey I liked it, but I’m not sure how much. From the syrupy, swelling music in the film’s first half to the thundering, gory carnage of the second half, I often got the impression that Hacksaw Ridge was being manipulative and taking some shortcuts with its characters, but the basic story of a conscientious objector who saved dozens of lives in a hellish war zone, that’s powerful and it’s told pretty effectively here.

brooke Even though I was well aware of the emotional manipulation taking place, I totally fell for it.
Hacksaw Ridge is based on the true story of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), a Virginia man who, because of a couple of incidents in his young life, is a pacifist. His mother is a religious woman and his father a violent drunk dealing with his own demons after having lost all his friends in the First World War. Desmond grows up, meets a girl (Dorothy Schutte, played by Teresa Palmer), and enlists in the army as a conscientious objector, determined that he can do good as a combat medic. He does basic training without touching a rifle, much to the chagrin of his superiors, and after a lot of trouble from army officers, eventually goes to Japan with a combat unit to the appropriately named Hacksaw Ridge.

casey Much of the first half consists of Desmond courting Dorothy, a nurse who seems decidedly out of his league. But Garfield’s puppy dog eyes makes him well suited to play a persistent underdog, and their relationship is cute, if a little thin. But I didn’t like Hugo Weaving’s performance as Tom; he never felt like a person from the same world. Meanwhile, Desmond’s army platoon are basically a collection of stereotypes: the pretty boy, the angry Italian, the All-American, and so on. Still, I’m a sucker for boot camp scenes and the characterization improves once the soldiers enter combat, although it tends to get overwhelmed by the noise and flying body parts.

brooke Yes Tom was a very flat character, especially in the scenes after Desmond has grown up. He turns into an overly shy man who can barely put words together, and even when he does, he sounds like he’s drunk even though he’s obviously given up drinking. It was an odd performance and I wanted more from him, especially after we learn that an encounter with Tom is the root cause of Desmond’s pacifism.
The guys in the platoon may be one-dimensional but it’s hard to give depth to all the characters we are introduced to without giving all of them a lot more time, and there simply aren’t enough minutes of screen time to go around. As for the combat scenes, noise, and body parts, I think it works overall to have some classic army tropes rushing into battle.

casey Speaking of that, I’ve heard some criticisms that the gratuitous violence undermines Desmond’s pacifism and heroism, and I agree to some extent: you can only see so many lovingly framed headshots before it feels less like the horror of war and more like  particularly over-the-top action film. But it’s hard not to get drawn in when Desmond finds himself alone behind enemy lines and, with no weapons, begins to rescue wounded men from both sides. It’s almost impossible to believe that some version of it actually happened.

brooke Honestly, I think the violence is part of what makes the movie work so well. The horror of war is just that–horrible–and it drives home a point Desmond makes, that when the world is falling apart, someone needs to be there to put it back together.

casey I’d say that as a study of an exceptional individual in extreme circumstances, Hacksaw Ridge is worth a watch. I don’t know if it breaks into the pantheon of great war movies (speaking of WW2 Pacific theater movies directed by controversial conservative actor/directors, I prefer Clint Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima), but it’s an experience.

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