A story of two halves, as Hacksaw Ridge spends an hour familiarising itself with Desmond Doss and his pacifist beliefs before he and his infantry make their way to the titular cliff-face in Japan.
As a biography it is passable enough. Doss’s story is remarkable, becoming the first conscientious objector to receive a Medal of Honor. Rather than add to the destruction and hate in the world, he wishes to put it back together by working in the heart of war ready to serve as a rifle-less medic. His team are initially hostile, hesitant to have a brother in arms missing the arms when they go over the top. Those at his training camp do their best to test his devotion to serving in the military, but his faith and his desire to help the world are unshakable.
The second of two Andrew Garfield films dealing with faith in the last month, his Desmond Doss is better than his Sebastião Rodrigues in Martin Scorsese’s Silence. His Christianity and American pride might not click with secular and international audiences, but even as a true to life figure, this is a character we are familiar with on the big screen. He is shown to be a wholesome small town boy who is immediately smitten with a wholesome small town girl in scenes which could be lifted from a John Green novel. Garfield does the best with what he has, showing Doss’s kind spirit and spiritual determination in the face of bloodshed. He never struggles with anchoring the film’s narrative, and thus ends up Hacksaw Ridge’s selling point.
Mel Gibson has had a turbulent time, and for Hollywood to embrace him again is hypocritical given their finger-waving at Trump. Having displayed some awful views, his career as an artist seemingly grants him a few more chances. If Hacksaw Ridge is his attempt to re-enter the Hollywood limelight it is a damp affair that says very little. As a director he has few reservations showing graphic brutality, which is on display here with limbs flying all over the place as mines and rockets and airstrikes lay waste to the battlefield. Visually it is an impressive maelstrom of humanity’s darkest hours, but it does quickly become clear that the film is concerned with little else other than Doss’s heroism.
It feels like a missed trick. Doss’s father, in an excellent performance from Hugo Weaving, is tortured and haunted by his experience of war. What ought to be an easy entry into a moral conundrum ends up as a limp family conflict. Doss feels compelled to go to war to help, but for someone with such strong convictions he offers no greater reasoning than it is what everyone else is doing. As the camera sweeps over the melée of American soldiers pushing back Japanese forces, sweeping prideful strings play, prodding your tearducts with their violin bows as if to say “this is the moment you cry with patriotism.”
It rests on its morals as a war film, and will reliably resonate with people who have flags of their country hanging in their gardens. Its attempt to bring something – anything – new to the genre is Doss’s admittedly admirable story, but it is not enough to make Hacksaw Ridge, or Gibson himself, feel like it is engaging with the world around it. As a piece of art it exists and belongs to an certain sect of society who would die for their country. For those sick of nationalism, bored by bombs, and looking for a challenge in their films about war, Hacksaw Ridge offers little but a strong performance from Garfield.