Thursday, February 23, 2017

Review of HACKSAW RIDGE: Steadfast Savior

February 23, 2017

"Hacksaw Ridge" is what American GIs called Maeda Escarpment, a steep cliff with a ragged edge found on Okinawa Island. This place was also the battlefield on which combat medic Desmond Doss displayed an uncommon valor and service above and beyond his duty. The feature film based on this episode of wartime heroism is directed by Mel Gibson and written by Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan. It earned six Oscar nominations including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor for Andrew Garfield. 

Desmond Doss was not a typical soldier. Being a devout Seventh Day Adventist, he refused to handle a rifle or train on Saturdays. Anyhow, he persisted with his military training despite the bullying of his superiors and fellow trainees. He served as a combat medic during the Battle of Okinawa during World War II.  After a particularly bloody encounter, Doss heard the anguish of his injured comrade and decided to run back to find them. One by one, he carried them out of the battlefield to the edge of the cliff and rappelled them down to safety in their base below. For saving 75 soldiers this way, Doss was awarded the Medal of Honor.

With his gangly frame and uncommon facial features, probably the same features which had him cast as Spider Man, Andrew Garfield was a very good choice to play an outsider, someone who marched to a different beat. For this film, he projects an awkward vibe that you may feel when you meet someone extremely religious. He had grit and sincerity in those battlefield scenes, even though his character looked like he had a charmed life. That scene when he was swatting grenades in mid-air was unreal.

Among the supporting actors, Hugo Weaving stood out as Desmond's father Tom Doss, who was scarred by his own wartime experience. I thought that performance was worthy of an Oscar nomination in itself, but it was not to be. Sam Worthington, Vince Vaughn and Luke Bracey play some of his army comrades, who were at first against Doss, but later learned to respect him for his unconventional brand of courage. Teresa Palmer plays his nurse sweetheart and later, his supportive wife. 

This is Mel Gibson's directorial comeback since "The Passion of the Christ" (2004) and "Apocalypto" (2006), and it was amply rewarded with an Oscar nomination. It felt like Gibson directed two films here. The first half was a story of how a simple country boy found his lady love and fought for his religious beliefs. The second half was an immersive viewing experience right in the middle of the war zone. These scenes were graphically bloody, brutally gory and horrifying to watch. I could not watch it straight on for the entire duration of those gun battles. Recall that Normandy Landing scene from "Saving Private Ryan" and extend it for 30 minutes, and then some more. It was breathtakingly excessive violence in true Mel Gibson style. 7/10. 

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