Road to the Oscars: "Hacksaw Ridge" Review

Updated on February 4, 2017

Staying True

Hacksaw Ridge is a historical war and action film, directed by Mel Gibson and starring Andrew Garfield, Vince Vaughn and Sam Worthington. It depicts the incredible true story of Private Desmond Doss (Garfield), a seventh day Adventist who is forced to fight for his religious beliefs before being sent to Okinawa during World War II, where the American forces are fighting to capture the intimidating Hacksaw Ridge from the Japanese army. Without firing a single bullet, Desmond, a combat medic, attempts to rescue several of his wounded brothers in arms while the rest of his regiment have retreated. Believe me when I say this is the simplest way to describe an incredibly detailed screenplay, marking the first return of controversial but critically-acclaimed Mel Gibson to the director’s chair since 2006’s Apocalypto. Hacksaw Ridge also marks Andrew Garfield’s first ever Oscar nomination, one of six Oscar nods, including one for Best Director and Best Picture.

Mel Gibson has shown himself to be a versatile talent in Hollywood over the past 30 years. He is known for dancing the line between actor and director, with credits in Lethal Weapon, Signs, and the Oscar-winning Braveheart. The big question is whether he can pull himself back up into the ranks of the A-list directors are a decade-long hiatus marred by so much bad publicity. Is Hacksaw Ridge his return ticket to the top?

Initial Thoughts

Saving Private Ryan’s opening scene has been long-considered one of the most realistic and terrible Hollywood depictions of the horrors of war. Well, now we can say with equal confidence that Hacksaw Ridge has taken that title. Hacksaw Ridge is a film of two halves: the first, a drama centred on Desmond’s refusal to touch a gun during military training, and the second a huge, almost relentless war sequence. While the latter is the film’s main draw, the first is by no means unengaging, as it is filled with just as much heart and spirit. It also serves as some excellent buildup to the actual fight later as it provides the emotional context every war film needs. Any fan of war films, action films as well as those intrigued by Mel Gibson and Andrew Garfield would be well advised to see this film if it’s still playing at a cinema near you.

Help Me Get One More

Let’s talk about the second half of Hacksaw Ridge. Once the U.S. soldiers climb up an incredibly scary looking rope ladder of death, it pretty much becomes an intense, adrenaline-filled massacre of people on both sides of the battle. Bloody limbs are blown off and every dying soldier’s scream of pain is followed by another explosion, an exchange of gunfire, more screams or a combination of all three. The incredible thing is that all this is captured wonderfully on camera, never feeling messy or dizzying, and reminiscent of Steven Spielberg’s low-angle, handheld technique. How much of this is attributed to Gibson’s directing and DoP Simon Duggan’s creativity, I do not know. But one thing’s for sure, it makes for a wildly entertaining, exciting, edge-of-your-seat experience that forces its way into the awards talk.

Andrew Garfield puts in one of his best performances to date as Desmond, a spiritually strong man with an equally strong sense of duty and patriotism. What Hacksaw Ridge does so brilliantly in its first half is showcase an ironic but respectful struggle of a man who cannot bring himself to pick up a rifle due to his belief against taking a life, but still ends up on a battlefield where killing is almost constant. To Desmond, the struggle is not within, but against his peers and superiors, who doubt his usefulness from the start. An empowering and confident performance highlights the former Spider-Man’s acting calibre, which is demonstrated in his speech and expressions during the film’s first half, and in his heroic actions during its second. Also a breath of fresh air is Vince Vaughn’s drill sergeant character, who is a hard but eventually calming presence on-screen, a callback to a time when Vaughn’s name was associated more with dramatic performances rather than the more recent comedic ones. Finally, a special mention must go out to Sam Worthington’s Captain Jack Glover, who is as commanding as he is calming on-screen, sadly shining more in a supporting role rather than his usual lead characters.

They May Take our Lives…

As a fan of stories inspired by true events, as well as action war flicks, there doesn’t seem to be much I can objectively flaw with Hacksaw Ridge. To say that some of the effects and events were unrealistic would probably be fair, same applies to some of the incredible feats achieved by Desmond on the ridge. That said, the effects are never too overwhelming to the point of boredom (I’m looking at you, Transformers), and Gibson himself has pointed out that he had to cut out some scenes which he thought the audience would never believe actually happened in real life, even though they did. An example would be Desmond getting shot by a sniper, but still being able to treat another wounded soldier nearby. We were also introduced to a rather diverse bunch of soldiers who form Desmond’s unit in the first act, but in the chaos of the fighting later, one is never really sure who gets shot and who loses a leg, which is arguably realistic in the mayhem and disorientation of the front lines. Importantly, Garfield’s Desmond Doss as well as the distinction between American and Japanese soldiers are clearly highlighted, as the smart editing sometimes cuts away from Desmond for what seems like a long period of time to show the struggle of his comrades in gaining a foothold against their enemy.

Concluding Remarks

Hacksaw Ridge is one of the most blood-pumping films to be released in 2016, with a tender first act that gets progressively more gritty, savage and violent as the film progresses. It is an inspiring insight into the spirit of the brave men fighting for their countries, while never undermining Desmond’s faith. Mel Gibson has certainly returned to the spotlight for all the right reasons, evidence of which recently surfaced in the form of an announced collaboration between Gibson and Vince Vaughn in a new crime drama Dragged Across Concrete (2018). Though its momentum in the awards race will likely not lead to wins for Best Picture, Director and Actor, the race for Editing, Sound Editing and Sound Mixing awards is still relatively open, and Hacksaw Ridge may just sneak in to steal one from under the nose of La La Land and Arrival. Whether or not it does so is obviously something we’ll have to see, but for now, let us celebrate a heroic story of a man who risked his life to save others, and the incredible film it’s been adapted into.

Overall Rating: 8.3/10

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