It was the best of films, it was the worst of films.
I would not be lying to you if I told you that I almost walked out of this film several times, something I promised myself I would never do. And yet, I don’t know if I’ve ever been so glad to have stayed.
Hacksaw Ridge is about real-life hero Desmond Doss, the first conscientious objector to win the Medal of Honor, and there’s no doubting the story’s poignancy. Doss refused to carry a weapon in his training and on the battlefield, electing to save lives rather than take them away, and he ended up rescuing 75 people in the Battle of Okinawa.
Director Mel Gibson—forget about the man’s past for a moment—chooses to not only show this battle, but also the trials that came before it, and that is where the film stumbles. Doss nearly kills his brother, and he has a drunk father (an excellent Hugo Weaving), and he becomes a good Christian boy. Then he meets a girl (Theresa Palmer, The Choice), and the plot proceeds like the most saccharine of Nicholas Sparks novels. It’s a disgustingly melodramatic formula, and I simply couldn’t take it.
Doss goes to basic training, where he receives a second act’s worth of heckling from his fellow recruits and superiors (one of whom is played surprisingly well by Vince Vaughan). He gets called a coward, and he’s beaten up, and yet his resolve is never broken. There are films where I feel religion is being forced on me, and this was surprisingly not one of them. When Doss finally arrives in Japan, I’m telling you, it’s one of the best war sequences ever made.
Andrew Garfield (Never Let Me Go) finds the film’s emotional center in his earnest portrayal of Doss. He spiders around the battlefield looking for wounded soldiers, all while avoiding the Japanese, and you truly believe he’s doing it for purely selfless purposes. He even stays when all the other healthy soldiers have retreated, so that he might save just one more person (and another and another). Everything about this battle, from the production design to the performances to the cinematography and special effects, is top-of-the-line, and it almost makes you forget about the mess that came before. At the very least, it makes you forgive it.
Without the first act, Hacksaw Ridge might be the best picture of the year, and without the last, it might be one of the worst. Even though it has both, I still think you should see it. Sometimes, the best of times make up for the worst in truly amazing ways.
Hacksaw Ridge is in theaters now.
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