Mel Gibson returns to the directing chair after a gap of 10 years with Hacksaw Ridge, which has been nominated for 6 Oscars including Best Picture, Director and Actor. The commercial and critical success of this film is also a sort of redemption for Gibson after being a Hollywood pariah for several years following his various domestic and personal issues which were acted out very publicly.
Gibson’s film is about real-life American Desmond Doss, a ‘conscientious objector’ who was a medic in World War 2 and performed such feats of heroism in the Pacific theatre that he was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Truman in 1945. Interestingly, although this is a film about an American Infantry division, most of the key actors are not American. Doss is played by Englishman Andrew Garfield and in order to qualify for tax incentives while shooting in Australia, the film features a predominantly Australia/ NZ cast with the likes of Hugo Weaving, Rachel Griffith, Sam Worthington, Luke Bracy and even Gibson’s own son Milo. The most significant American actor in the film is Vince Vaughn in a welcome departure from his usual low brow roles; he plays the Army sergeant Howell, the proverbial tough guy with a heart of gold who is part of some genuinely entertaining moments in the early part of the film while Doss is in Army training camp. In some real-life footage at the end of the film, we see the real Desmond Doss and if anything he is even skinnier and lankier than Andrew Garfield. When Sgt. Howell (Vince Vaughn) first sees Doss at the training camp he says, “I have seen stalks of corn with better physiques!” and then turns to his assistant saying, “Make sure you keep this man away from strong winds.”
As Desmond Doss, Andrew Garfield plays a bigger superhero than he ever could have in any number of Spider-Man films. In a squirm-inducing and almost unwatchable battle scene in the final act, Doss keeps going and going, like the Eveready bunny; powered by prayer and determination, he rescues more than 75 wounded soldiers from the top of ‘Hacksaw ridge’ on Okinawa island while under constant fire and bombardment. Like a marathoner who thinks “just one more stride”, Doss says “O Lord, help me get one more, just one more” and then goes back into the battlefield to find another wounded man. Garfield is perfectly cast and I can’t think of any other A-list actor who can play a character who is so pure and uncomplicated in his beliefs.
Hugo Weaving, who film fans will know as Agent Smith from the Matrix films or Elrond from Lord of the Rings does an outstanding job playing Doss’ alcoholic father, a WW1 solider whose self-hatred and violent nature was one of the key factors that fuelled Doss’ determination to follow a non-violent path as an adult.
Gibson as director brings several different moods and tones into this film. There is a lovely romantic interlude in the first act as Doss courts his wife-to-be, a nurse at the nearby hospital. Then there are the very entertaining training scenes in the 2nd act featuring Vince Vaughn’s Sgt Howell familiarising himself with the company of new recruits. This quickly morphs into intense drama as Doss stands his ground while the Army tries to get him discharged and court-martialled for failing to pick up a weapon. The battle scene in the 3rd act plays like something out of Starship Troopers or Aliens, with Doss’ company virtually overrun by hundreds of Japanese troops who keep coming and coming and coming. I felt it was even more brutal than the opening Normandy beach scenes in Saving Pvt. Ryan (and I know that film kept me awake the whole night). And then at the tail end of the movie, in the final assault on Hacksaw Ridge, Gibson injects a sort of spiritual mysticism into the scenes of the troops going into battle seemingly protected by the aura of Doss’ presence and his prayers.
At a time when the world is polarized into opposing camps with rigid beliefs and unyielding positions, this film throws a light on the power of a person’s convictions and how far he will go to safeguard them. It asks the question of what is right and what is wrong. Is right and wrong determined by the number of people who believe in that position? Can a man be right about something even if he is in the minority or perhaps, the only person who believes in it? History has shown us that indeed this can be the case, with philosophers, scientists, religious and social reformers all having had to wade against the tide of public opinion to put forward a new idea or be given the freedom to live by their beliefs.
With the stiff competition at the Oscars this year, I suspect it will be Moonlight or La La Land taking away best picture and best directing Oscars and I think Casey Affleck should pick up the statuette for Best Actor. So it’s possible that Hacksaw Ridge will come away empty handed although it could be a front runner for Sound Editing or Sound Mixing, given all the sound engineering required for the battle scenes. Irrespective of the outcome of the Oscars, this film is a must-watch, both for its story, for Mel Gibson’s mature directing and for the fact that it forms part of the increasingly impressive body of work that Andrew Garfield has built up in the past few years, starting with The Social Network in 2010, the 2 Spider-Man movies (in which he was the saving grace), 99 Homes and Martin Scorsese’s Silence. All this by the age of 33. Next is another possible ‘award-magnet’ role as a paralyzed polio survivor in Breathe directed by ‘Gollum’ actor Andy Serkis. As for Mel Gibson, I am so thrilled to see him return to the mainstream and that too with such success. I’ve loved all the movies he has directed (except Passion of the Christ which I haven’t seen), his visceral style and look forward to what comes next.