PLOT The true story of Desmond Doss, a World War II hero who saved 75 men without ever firing a weapon.
CAST Andrew Garfield, Vince Vaughn, Teresa Palmer
RATED R (graphic violence)
BOTTOM LINE An unusual pro-peace war film from director Mel Gibson. Solidly entertaining and impressively faithful to the facts.
“Hacksaw Ridge,” a World War II drama about a real-life pacifist soldier who saved the lives of 75 men without ever firing a weapon, is Mel Gibson’s first film as a director since 2006. That year marked the start of a dark period for Gibson that included a drunk-driving arrest, outbursts against Jews and accusations of domestic abuse. Though it’s easy to conflate actors with their roles, Gibson seemed to be showing us the hateful flip side of the macho heroes he portrayed on screen.
Is “Hacksaw Ridge” his mea culpa? In this unusual Gibson film, violence itself is the villain. Gibson has even called his movie “a love story,” but let’s be clear — it’s very much a war film, too, with all the thrilling, horrifying battle scenes that entails. In other words, “Hacksaw Ridge” follows a time-honored Hollywood tradition of having it both ways.
Andrew Garfield plays Desmond Doss, a skinny kid from Virginia whose faith as a Seventh Day Adventist prevents him from carrying a gun. Nevertheless, he decides to serve his country as an Army medic; his inspiration is Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer), the pretty nurse he later marries. Doss’ father (Hugo Weaving), a shattered veteran of the Great War, belittles his son’s idealism: “You think this war is just gonna fit in with you?”
Indeed it does not, at first. In boot camp, Doss is mocked by Drill Sergeant Howell (an excellent Vince Vaughn), beaten by his fellow soldiers (Luke Bracy plays their leader, Smitty) and nearly imprisoned for insubordination. Despite it all, Doss accompanies his unit to Okinawa, where they attempt to pry the Japanese off the 350-foot escarpment dubbed Hacksaw Ridge. Here, Gibson’s slow-building film finally explodes, and Gibson comes alive as a director. Although Doss can feel one-dimensional — Garfield never quite finds the personality under the principles — Gibson compensates by surrounding him with flak, bullets and blood as he doggedly drags his comrades, one by one, to safety.
In many ways, Doss is no different from other Gibson heroes — a self-sufficient loner with a personal code of honor. As for Gibson, whatever his flaws as a person, he remains an excellent director whose mission is clear: to entertain an audience.