Mel Gibson has done it again. "Hacksaw Ridge" is the cinematic event of 2016-2017. "HR" is the true story of Private Desmond Doss, a Seventh-Day Adventist from Virginia who enlists in World War II, but--as a conscientious objector--staunchly refuses to bear arms. Literally. He won't even touch a gun, let alone go through the required rifle training. His dream is to be a medic and save lives.
Desmond Doss is the only c.o. to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor. Why? He saved 50-75 lives of the wounded on the battlefield when the orders were to retreat. One of the taglines for the film is: "One man stayed behind." Andrew Garfield, who plays Doss, effortlessly inhabits this simple, guileless, fearless country boy (as evidenced by actual interview footage with Doss at the end of the film).
The movie begins with showing us exactly who this young man is, from childhood on. We enter deeply into his family dynamic (World War I veteran father who has turned to alcohol and domestic violence). Despite their dysfunction, God and religion are a living, breathing reality in the Doss family. As a man of faith himself, Gibson can depict this with non-ironic authenticity.
Act Two is the strange dilemma of a brave young man--thought to be a coward by his comrades and superiors--navigating the heart of the U.S. Army as a pacifist. Due to the uniqueness of his situation and a series of miscommunications, Doss faces spending the war in a military prison before he ever sees action. His salvation is the U.S. Constitution and laws, at a time in U.S. history that they are actually honored and upheld (yes, that's cynicism you are noting in my tone).
Act Three is sheer, all-out war.
IT'S ALL PERSONAL
Although a grand-scale film, it never, ever loses the small, personal, human scale. In fact, it's all about that. So much so that it could be called a film that subscribes to a "personalist" philosophy. "HR" has it all: history, humor, romance, principles, honor, conflict, moral conundrums. The love story is sweet and surprising: a mini-primer by the gracious "greatest generation" on how it's done. Dorothy (Teresa Palmer) loves Desmond because he "isn't like the others." Smart women love men who know who they are, who can stand on their own two feet, who live by their convictions. Not just convictions: their convictions.
The casting is dead on. The actors embrace a 40's vibe in unison. The soundtrack/score is engulfing. The writing/dialogue is sterling. And on top of all these accolades, this is just good old-fashioned movie-making with the added arsenal of today's digital wizardry. However, it really looks and feels like it was shot on film. "HR" must be seen on the big screen. I repeat: must be seen on the big screen.
Drawbacks? Negatives? The first few minutes of the film begin with some shaky, hokey, on-the-nose exposition, but it quickly disperses. Vince Vaughn is hilarious as the nickname-slewing Sarge, but he also plays his role with a kind of John Wayne/Tom Hanks softness that unrealistically mitigates the utter desperation of the situation.
GLORIFICATION OF WAR?
My main question going into this film (as with all war films) was: Does it glorify war? My answer is no, but that will depend on the viewer, of course. "HR" is a gorefest (typical of Gibson, anyway)--but that's exactly what war is: especially this difficult, impossible arena of "Hacksaw Ridge." We are exposed to spurting arteries, heads blown off, living legless torsos, maggot and rat-ridden corpses, men-turned-grotesque-monsters shrieking all the way to their hideous deaths. Why was "Hacksaw Ridge" so vital? It was the path to Okinawa.
For me, war was shown to be "sufficiently" horrific and hellish in "HR." But I don't know how someone who has endured war or played a steady stream of military videogames will see it. Are we all inured? "HR" will definitely draw parallels to "Saving Private Ryan." The insane din, the whizzing bullets, the never-ending nightmare of healthy young men instantly turned into bloody parcels of meat. The men we get to know so well being picked off one by one. However, the carnage is much more incessant and much more extreme in "HR"--not for the faint of heart.
GOD IS REAL. MIRACLES HAPPEN. DEAL WITH IT.
My second question going into the film was: Is our hero going to be some Bible-toting, Bible-quoting mystic who miraculously dodges bullets and grenades because he's praying and relying on the Word of God and Psalms of protection? The answer is no and yes. "Grace perfects nature and doesn't replace it." The grace of God builds on nature. God and us working together. ALL is gift, including Doss' natural "mountain goat" litheness and cool-headed courage. BUT. There is also such a thing as the miraculous. God intervening directly. We shouldn't let our eagerness to pander to "objective" rationality and "facts" make us deniers of a greater Reality. What Doss accomplished was nothing short of miraculous. And he tells us so: "I just kept asking God: Give me one more, Lord," as he went back again and again UNARMED AND UNDER FIRE to bring the injured to safety.
Excellent justifications for use of force are presented--not only the promoting of nonviolent action. All the hard questions are dealt with. "Hacksaw Ridge" is a magnificent film that will take its rightful place in the anals of war movies. This is a very important film for young men to see (in life, men in particular find themselves faced with the question of when to use physical force and when not to). Men, young and old, need to know that there also exists ultimate bravery, heroism and daring--apart from violence, destruction and devastation. The valor of peace can exist even in the midst of war.