Mel Gibson is back! Whilst some may not be pleased by that, the silver screen sure has missed Mel as a presence both in front of and behind the camera, so it’s good to see him back in the game. Putting to one side some of the unpleasant things that have occurred in his private life, you cannot deny what a terrific action star and brilliant director Gibson has proved himself to be.
Based on a true story as I’m sure you know, the movie follows Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) a very religious conscientious objector who signs up as a combat medic during World War II despite the protests of his fiance Dorothy (Theresa Palmer) and his abusive Great War veteran father (Hugo Weaving). During training for the Army, he is ostracised and punished for his refusal to carry a weapon or engage in combat due to his beliefs. He is eventually allowed to serve and his beliefs are put to the test at Hacksaw Ridge during the Battle of Okinawa.
Often these real life movies based around one historical figure live and die by the performance of the lead actor. Even if every other aspect is carried out to a high standard, it is all in vain if the performance they are orbiting is lack-luster. Thankfully, in this case, the lead actor is spectacular.
Garfield manages to pull off being a very sweet, sincere, overly wholesome, good-natured typical American boy, without being incredibly annoying. That might not sound like a compliment but, trust me, it is. An actor of a lesser calibre could have been calamitous in the role and in a movie that is completely focused, structured and entirely dependent on its protagonist. A misfired performance could have sunk the entire movie despite all its other merits. The Amazing Spider-Man movies seemed to have halted Garfield’s rise temporarily. The promise of amazing talent that we first saw in The Social Network had not really taken off since but it seems like Garfield is finally taking the roles that will let him stretch his acting legs and let him finally fulfil the potential that has been bursting to escape for some time now.
The first act of the movie really succeeds in attaching the audience to the characters in the movie. Nothing that significant story-wise happens apart from Desmond meeting his future wife Dorothy but all the major players and themes in the story are very well set up right from the start.
The middle section of the movie takes place in a boot camp and here’s where the movie could have really dropped the ball. It is impossible to watch a military boot camp scene without comparing it to Full Metal Jacket. The boot camp section of Stanley Kubrick’s legendary movie is an absolute masterstroke. Nothing will ever come close to R Lee Emery’s Gunnery Sergeant Hartman crushing the body and soul of his new recruits into the marine corp. At first, it feels like this section of the movie is just going to be a less than spectacular rip-off of Full Metal Jacket, as so many films featuring militaristic boot camps over the years have been (Here’s looking at you Jarhead). Although it does follow some familiar beats (The Sergeant giving each of the soldiers’ nicknames whilst abusing them, we’ve never seen that before have we?), thankfully the boot camp section manages to carve its own unique identity. At first Vince Vaughn’s Sergeant Howell seems like a rip-off of Gunnery Sergeant Hartman but we soon get to see the many facets of his personality other than the brutal drill sergeant.
What’s most surprising and pleasing about Hacksaw Ridge, is that it promises war and it promises violence but at it’s core it’s about morals, strength and heroism. Up until the end of the second act, we have barely witnessed an act of violence. The movie so far has been about ideas and debating those ideas. It has challenged the audience, made them think, as all great movies should.
But this is still a war movie and when we get to the battle of Hacksaw Ridge, the moment the entire story has been building up to, it does not disappoint on its promise of brutal war. After the first wave of the battle, I almost thought Gibson was deliberately holding back on showing how brutal the Japanese are but after the second wave and the scene of Doss going behind enemy lines to rescue survivors, I was pleased to see that Gibson did not back off from showing the brutality.
If the war was not shown as being truly horrific, then it would not do true justice to the bravery Desmond Doss showed in his actions on Hacksaw Ridge. Thankfully Gibson does not hold back on showing exactly how brutal the battle really was. Gibson’s direction, the sound design, and in particular, the editing are absolutely on point during the battle. I love the way Gibson shoots action. There’s nothing flashy or in your face about the camerawork or cinematography (i.e. Kubrick’s extreme long take of Kirk Douglas and his men going over the top in Paths of Glory) which in a way is a shame but what I did really like about the way the battle of Hacksaw Ridge was filmed and edited was that the action seems extremely chaotic and all over the place, yet as you’re watching it you have a clear understanding of what’s happening on screen. The world does not need another Bourne style, where you can barely tell what’s going on action scene, and similarly, we don’t need another war movie, especially a World War II movie, that’s shot like Saving Private Ryan. Pretty much every war movie since 1998 has done this and it’s got just a little old. Gibson refrains from imitating these other styles, and stick to the great action directing that he previously demonstrated in Braveheart and Apocoloyto.
Gibson has many attributes that make him a great director; ability to create a real tone and atmosphere, able to shoot coherent, intense, action sequences, an over-reliance on Jesus imagery. Okay, so maybe that last one isn’t exactly a positive aspect of his filmmaking. By far the greatest weapon in Gibson’s directorial armada is his ability to get truly great performances out of actors, sometimes performances that you weren’t previously sure said actor could even pull off.
Hugo Weaving is the best he has been in years, Vince Vaughn recovers from the disappointment of True Detective Season 2 to pull out a brilliant performance, and Sam Worthington displays so much talent it’s hard to believe that he’s the same actor who turned out such dire performances in Terminator Salvation and Clash of the Titans.
I must confess that I have not seen much of Teresa Palmer before but based on the performance she delivers in this movie, I would very much like to see her given some really challenging roles. Gibson really seems to get actors and appears to know how to wring the best out of them. Of course, it should be no real surprise that he is well versed in the craft of acting as he himself is an actor.
The most spectacular thing about this movie though is that the story actually is true. Thankfully Mel Gibson and the screenwriters, Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan, are smart enough not to overdramatize the real events and take too much liberty with them. This is an extraordinary story and the best way to do justice to it is simply to show it as it happened.
A movie that manages to be emotional, heartwarming, inspiration, intense and thrilling at the same time is not a very a easy thing to pull off, but with every aspect of the film firing on all cylinders, Hacksaw Ridge manages to be all these things and more.