MOVIE BUFF-ET: Hacksaw Ridge depicts brutality of war, honor of service

Mark Rogers / Lionsgate

The opening scenes of Hacksaw Ridge with its bursts of fire, billows of black smoke, and horrifically graphic depictions of combat in the Pacific Theater of World War II can only be described as hellish.

It’s only an opening salvo in a movie that is a as graphic and grotesque as any I have sat through, but director Mel Gibson’s latest film doesn’t attempt to shock the viewer for a cheap thrill like a horror film. It’s a visceral attempt to depict the utter horror, violence, and senselessness of war, and how one light in the darkness can make such a shinning difference.

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The movie is a raw telling of the story of Pfc. Desmond T. Doss, a young man who despite his objection to bearing arms on religious grounds, served as a medic in WWII. Doss, played by Andrew Garfield, won the Congressional Medal of Honor and the respect and admiration of his unit by risking his life to save 75 wounded men one-by-one at the Battle of Okinawa.

Doss’ selfless acts of bravery and compassion against the most horrific conditions imaginable are truly difficult to comprehend and believe, but his story is more than worthy of telling, and it shows how valuable the actions and compassion of one man can be. The end result is a film that both horrifies and inspires. In similar fashion to Stephen Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, the movie shows the lengths and depths of the sacrifice soldiers have made in service to their country. As a nation we owe an unpayable debt for the incalculable cost to those who served and to their families.

The film is haunting in the depiction of Doss’ family and detailing the mental scars left on Doss’ father (Hugo Weaving) after his service in World War I and the effects his posttraumatic stress disorder had on his family. Weaving heart wrenchingly depicts an alcoholic who loves his family, yet he is a physically and mentally abusive husband and father, with deep-seeded guilt after he returned from the war while his two best friends did not. Weaving’s complex performance — like the film itself — is horrifying and touching at the same time.

Two key experiences growing up in his dysfunctional family shapes Doss’ devout Seventh Day Adventist beliefs about nonviolence and cements his refusal to carry a weapon. Garfield’s performance early in the movie comes off as corny, but he is at his best when he explains at a court-marshal hearing why he felt compelled to serve as a medic despite his refusal to carry a weapon. He was not going to let others fight and die for his freedom without him.

Doss’ homespun nature and refusal to bear arms rubs his unit the wrong during basic training as they are made to suffer because of his refusal to tow the line. Luke Bracey plays a soldier who mentally and physically torments Doss before gaining respect for him because of his actions on the battlefield.

Vince Vaughn stands out as Doss’ drill sergeant, who quickly gains respect for Doss but whose duty requires him to attempt to break the private’s will.

Teresa Palmer gives a winning performance as a nurse whom Doss charms into to going on an unlikely date prior to him entering the military and ultimately becoming his supportive wife. Rachel Griffiths is also solid as Doss’ longsuffering mother.

Gibson’s film is compelling told yet repulsively violent, much like his previous films The Passion of the Christ and Apocalypto. Some have labeled them as violently pornographic. It is interesting that Gibson tends to pick stories of violence as the subjects of his films, but I’d argue his choice to not sugarcoat the horrific nature of those stories makes the films more truthful. We all know the truth can be horrible.

While the movie can be viewed as uplifting in its depictions of Doss’ heroism, I would heavily caution parents to see the movie before allowing younger teens to see the film even with parental supervision. The movie is not for the squeamish of any age.

Hacksaw Ridge is definitely not among the most entertaining films I’ve seen this year, but it is the most affecting. The images cling to you. It’s an unforgettable movie that could garner Oscar attention.

(R) 2 hr. 11 min
Grade: A

Classics Corner

Meet John Doe

Sometimes the message is better than the man behind it. And sometimes belief in a message can transform the persons who believe in it, even if initially they aren’t altogether honest. That’s the message I get from director Frank Capra’s 1941 dramedy Meet John Doe.

Stars Gary Cooper as tramp John Willoughby/John Doe and Barbara Stanwyck as conniving newspaper columnist Ann Mitchell power the film, while Walter Brennan, Edward Arnold, James Gleason, and Gene Lockhart provide excellent support.

Fired from her job with one final article to write, Stanwyck’s character opts to spins a heart-wrenching yarn about a fictional unemployed man “John Doe,” who threatens to commit suicide on Christmas Eve to protest society’s ills.

Stanwyck’s letter creates a sensation, prompting her editor Henry Connell (Gleason) to grill her on just exactly who this John Doe actually is. Under pressure for more on John Doe, Connell rehires Mitchell to craft more tales. When the public demands a a personal appearance by John Doe, the paper hires Cooper’s Willoughby to play the role, which at first comes naturally to the down-on-his-luck former baseball pitcher. Breenan, Willoughby’s travelling companion “The Colonel,” warns Cooper to not step into the trap, but the money and the opportunity to be around Stanwyck is just too great for Cooper to resist.

The John Doe campaign with its motto “Be a Better Neighbor” spirals into mass popularity after Cooper delivers a speech written by Stanwyck in character, but Cooper becomes conflicted when he learns the newspapers publisher (Arnold) seeks to ride Doe’s populist wave into national political office.

While funny and charming, the film, much like Capra’s 1947 classic It’s a Wonderful Life, has dark undertones, examining how desperate times tempts good people into making poor even immoral decisions. While the movie is nearly 80 years old, the questions it poses are as prescient today as ever.