A Real Hero: Mel Gibson's "Hacksaw Ridge" (2016)
As Spider-Man, Andrew Garfield was the web slinging acrobat who was more convincing and amazing than Toby Maguire, but in Hacksaw Ridge, Garfield plays a man of uncompromising belief that redefines cinematic heroics. Garfield portrays the mild-mannered Desmond Doss, a conscientious objector who was awarded the Medal of Honor for saving soldiers in the Battle of Okinawa, notably using nets and ropes to help lower wounded men from atop the 350 feet high Maeda Escarpment.
By choosing such a morally righteous protagonist in Doss, the once scandalized Mel Gibson eases back into Hollywood with his comeback film and shows no shines of rust, as the director's WWII epic is just as brilliant and brutal as 2006's Apocalypto. Gibson's attention to detail and fluid storytelling in the riveting Hacksaw Ridge is strengthened by the wonderful performances of Garfield and the supporting cast.
Although the film opens with a white-knuckled battle sequence bursting with carnage and chaos, the story quickly pivots to Doss' childhood upbringing. The son of a boozing, PTSD afflicted WWI veteran (Hugo Weaving), Doss is not unlike Opie Taylor, except that in roughhousing with his brother, he becomes violent and this leads to a religious awakening in the adolescent. Gibson's direction captures characters with complete arcs and dimension, as Doss's father Tom is at times an abusive father, yet also caring and protective of his son.
Hacksaw is a tale of faith, as Doss's resilience is tested by his father, the military and war. When he enlists in the army, he does so to become a medic to save, not take lives, vowing never to pick up a gun. His stance as a conscientious objector isolates him from his fellow recruits during basic training as he's the target of bullying from the brutish Smitty (Luke Bracey). Vince Vaughn and Sam Worthington are magnificent as the commanding officers breathing down the neck of Doss, men whose crisp uniforms one can smell from the screen. For refusing to complete rifle training, Doss is jailed and court-martialed, only to be rescued at the last moment by a favor from a high-ranking military friend of his father.
Gibson meshes together the best elements of classic war films such as Saving Private Ryan, Full Metal Jacket and The Deer Hunter for a highly nuanced experience. The audience is allowed into the heart and soul of Doss, a man of good intention and transparency. He's madly in love with his wife, his parents are close to his heart and his bible shields him on the battlefield. Garfield's screen presence is reminiscent of the late Anthony Perkins; shy, slim, handsome and sensitive yet wielding a samurai sharpness for body language.
As the bloody slayings of Okinawa spill from the screen in a violent haze, Gibson contrasts the difficulty it takes to save just one life. As men lay wounded in trenches begging for mercy, Doss becomes their unlikely savior, a hero of unyielding perseverance with clever resolve and jaw-dropping compassion, even for the Japanese enemy. Hacksaw Ridge is a triumph of grit and grace that contemplates war from a peaceful bystander's perspective, and while most military heroes keep their fingers on the trigger, Doss simply lends a hand.