Thursday, March 2, 2017

Films of 2016: "Hacksaw Ridge"


Hacksaw Ridge opens with glimpses of the horrors of war, an element that's typical of many war films. What's different here is the juxtaposition that this imagery has with a recitation of Isaiah 40, spoken by the film's main protagonist, Private Desmond Doss. Doss (played by Andrew Garfield in the film) became the first conscientious objector to receive the Medal of Honor, as he refused to fire a weapon in the heat of battle. The film, directed by Mel Gibson (his fifth feature behind the camera), stands as a character study of one man's convictions, beliefs, and ultimate actions.

As the film portrays, Doss experienced two life-changing moments (of violence) as a child and vowed to never fire a gun. One of these supposedly involved his brother, while the other involved his alcoholic war veteran father (traumatized by what the first World War did to him and those close to him). Doss's father tries to convince his son of the reality of what the world is--not single-minded but harsh, especially when it comes to taking others' lives. The story is smart (though a little sentimental) in illustrating what love does on the opposite end, as Doss begins courting a local nurse.

Doss's decision to enlist as a medic, by saving lives instead of taking them, doesn't come without opposition and controversy, of course. His fellow soldiers and commanding officers at Fort Jackson begin to test him, with many believing he's a coward for his choices. They decide to push him to the point where he's put on trial and faces the possibility of prison. "I don't know how I'm going to live with myself if I don't stay true to what I believe," says Doss in defense.

Andrew Garfield
The film also stands as a testament to what makes a "hero" and what makes one brave. Similar though different from the way Clint Eastwood illustrated this theme in Sully, so Gibson does so in contrasting heroism with cowardice. "It wouldn't be right to just sit at home and be safe," Doss tells us. "I need to serve." And while the film is slow-paced in its first half, it's when Doss's unit joins what's left of the 96th Infantry in battle in 1945 halfway through that the buildup and intensity rises (as if walking into Hell itself), and then things suddenly get graphic.

This is certainly one of the most graphic depictions of war ever put on film. (No surprise, considering Gibson's track record of violence and carnage in many of his films.) On the other hand, what makes this war film different (and one of the most profound in recent memory) is its character focus as it puts everything Doss stands for to the test, resulting in a heroic journey that impacts his fellow countrymen and commanding officers, even inspiring them to go back up and fight. ("They believe in how much you believe," his commanding officer shares.) For one thing, the imagery of Doss staying to rescue lives, while men below the Ridge carry said casualties back to base, powerfully signifies lives being taken out of hellfire. He even unexpectedly tends to a wounded Japanese soldier. How inspiring for Gibson to make a war film about a real-life figure who had a (ahem) brave heart.

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