Director: Mel Gibson
Writer: Robert Schenkkan, Randall Wallace, and Andrew Knight; The Conscientious Objector by Terry Benedict
Cinematographer: Simon Duggan
Producer: Bill Mechanic, David Permut, Terry Benedict, Paul Currie, Bruce Davey, Brian Oliver, William D. Johnson
by Jon Cvack
I had almost given up on seeing this in the theaters, that is until I watched his year’s THR’s Directors roundtable, featuring Mel Gibson who was far far more strange and fascinating than I ever would have expected. Two separate accounts led me to nearly seeing the film - one at Orlando Film Festival during some down time, though my rightful sense of guilt prevented me from seeing a mainstream Hollywood epic rather than another one of my indie brethren’s. The other was in downtown LA, showing once per day at 1:30pm, except when I finally had the opportunity to go it had been removed. Figuring I’d never see it in theaters, but then seeing the THR interview, I looked once more and found it at a bargain $3 theater up in North Hollywood. I’d never been to the place and without getting too into the details, I sincerely miss these types of theaters, which are getting closed down left and right or replaced with luxury theaters that offer nice seats for $20 tickets. This theater didn’t quite have the sticky floors, but the neon lights were abundant and the projection and sound were as good as anything else.
I had heard the film contained the best battle sequences since Saving Private Ryan, having received a 10 minute standing ovation at the Venice Film Festival. Those two factors alone left me determined to see the movie in the proper setting. Yet while the film was good, it wasn’t great, with surprisingly generic choices scattered throughout the story - namely how the soldiers talked to each other and the casting of Vince Vaughn.
The story centers around Desmond T. Doss (Andrew Garfield) who’s a Seventh-Day Adventist and therefore a conscientious objector who won’t even pick up a rifle, let alone kill someone in the name of war. The film opens at the Battle of Okinawa with flames blazing, bombs exploding in all directions, and dead bodies everywhere. We then cut to the distant past, with Desmond as a young boy who hits his brother in the head with a brick, leading his mother to lecture him about their Adventist beliefs; namely that murder is never justified. Years later, WWII has broken out. Refusing to avoid the war on account of his beliefs, Desmond enlists as an Infantryman in the Army.
The boot camp barracks are full of the usual banter, and for how often this has been done well (Saving Private Ryan ('98), When Trumpets Fade (1998), Platoon ('86), Jarhead, Hamburger Hill (1987), "The Pacific"/"Band of Brothers"). I’m still surprised that some just can’t get the camaraderie right. Something about it all felt generic and uninspired, as ignoring its forefathers’ lessons about how to create chemistry between brothers in arms, and offering superficial glimpses and relationships. It gets all the weirder when Vince Vaughn enters the room as Sergeant Howell, doing his best R. Lee Ermey, and coming up far short in the process. I was pleased to see Gibson welcomed some of Vaughn’s sarcastic humor, rather than veering toward the officiousness we often see in these characters, but at times it felt out of place.
Just as the men are about to hit up the firing range, Doss explains his pacifist values, leading to a pretty interesting conflict as the army is confronted between allowing freedom of religion versus ensuring that every man is train and ready to kill as needed. The issue is increasingly moved up the ladder, creating tension amongst the men who figure him a coward and unfit to serve. Soon Doss faces a court martial, but thanks to his father’s WWI roots and relationship to Brigadier General, Doss is excused. To think that he would have been dishonorably discharged or imprisoned if his father never stepped in seems stranger than fiction; arguably a moment of divine intervention that fits with the story’s overall themes. Doss is excused, returns back to his platoon, and they head off to the Battle of Okinawa.
The entire battle sequence is pretty good, but fell way short of the new era that Gibson ushered in with Braveheart and it’s epic battle sequences. This might be attributed to the fact that - as Gibson mentioned in THR - that he had half the days and half the money from Braveheart ('95), required to shoot this entire movie in about 59 days. Still, this is about the same amount of time that Saving Private Ryan had and look at what Spielberg produced. I’m a firm believer that there were two eras of shooting gun battle scenes - those before Saving Private Ryan and those after. Hacksaw Ridge’s influence is clear, but even many scenes from "The Pacific" and "Band of Brothers" outshine this film. One problem I had was the chronic use of CGI blood and effects, which seemed completely unnecessary given how many practical effects were used in the same scenes. Worse were the battleships firing their guns, using absolutely horrendous CGI that looked better suited for a video game.
Having recently had the near religious experience of seeing The Thin Red Line (1998) in a theater about six months ago, I couldn’t help feeling like it was all second rate. It was all good, but not in any way the best since Saving Private Ryan, as I think even Enemy at the Gates (2001) had more exciting sequences than Hacksaw.
Still, Gibson delivers a powerful film, demonstrating that you don’t need to kill to be a hero. The fact that Doss actually saved over 75 individuals over a period of a day and a half, lowering them down by rope from the cliff is truly awe inspiring. Like Braveheart, this is the type of classic Hollywood epic that celebrates the greatness of man rather than the faults. While it took a bit to get used to (most likely because I just watched The Social Network ('10)), Andrew Garfield proved to be incredible, floating between innocent charm and great intelligence. He wasn’t the “enlightened redneck” that I think many films often create with these types of characters, and Garfield never condescends to the real Doss. What we see is a celebration of honor. As his Captain Glover (Sam Worthington) says after the great rescue mission, people may not believe in what he values, but they believe in him and how much he values what he believes. It’s a phenomenal portrayal of a man who had the courage to live with the consequences of his convictions; to not argue about what he believes, so much as demonstrate and prove what he can do.
BELOW: Tough shoes to fill by everyone
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