Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Mel Gibson
Stars: Andrew Garfield, Vince Vaughn, Hugo Weaving, Teresa Palmer, Rachel Griffiths, Sam Worthington, Richard Roxburgh, Firani Dirass, Ben Mingay, Nathaniel Buzolic, Luke Bracey, Darcy Bryce, Milo Gibson, Robert Morgan, Phillip Quast, Ryan Corr.
For a long time now Mel Gibson’s career has been tarnished by the media spotlight focusing on his off screen dramas and personal meltdowns, and people tend to forget what a great filmmaker he is. But this year Gibson has started on the comeback trail to redemption with a strong performance as a father helping his estranged daughter escape the clutches of drug dealers in the violent revenge drama Blood Father. And now he steps back into the director’s chair for the first time since 2006’s Apocalypto for Hacksaw Ridge, one of the most powerful and harrowing war films in recent memory. It is also one of the best films of the year!
Written by former comedy writer Andrew Knight (The Water Diviner, etc) and Robert Shenkkan (tv miniseries The Pacific, etc), Hacksaw Ridge tells the inspirational true story of Desmond T Doss, a conscientious objector who won the Congressional medal of Honour, America’s highest military decoration, for his actions in WWII. [Doss is the WWII equivalent of WWI’s heroic sergeant Alvin York (superbly played on screen by Gary Cooper in his Oscar winning role).] I must admit that I didn’t know anything about Doss or his story before seeing the film, but it made me want to learn more about this unassuming hero.
Doss (played here by Andrew Garfield, best known for playing Spiderman) was a Seventh Day Adventist who abhorred violence as it was against his religious beliefs. Nonetheless he enlisted in the US army as he believed that the war against the Japanese was a just one. He joined intending to serve as a medic. In his words he wanted to save lives rather than take lives. But his firm beliefs and his steadfast refusal to pick up a rifle during basic training quickly set him at odds with his fellow soldiers who mistake his principles for cowardice. Doss was bullied, beaten and nearly court martialed for his actions.
But when he and his platoon was sent to fight the Japanese on the island of Okinawa in 1945 he proved them all wrong. A vital Japanese stronghold, Okinawa was a bloodbath, with high casualties on both sides. Under heavy artillery fire and sniper fire, Doss dragged 75 wounded soldiers to safety, lowering them from the battlefield via a makeshift harness.
This powerful and very human story of courage under fire, faith, forgiveness, patriotism, love and conflict has been something of a passion project for Gibson, who has nurtured it for the better part of a decade and he does Doss’s incredible story justice. As he demonstrated with the Oscar winning Braveheart, Gibson knows how to stage epic big and bloody battle sequences. Here he captures the horror and carnage of war with some of the most intense, gory, stomach churning and harrowingly realistic battle scenes committed to celluloid with bodies and body parts scattered across the landscape. These scenes make the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan seem almost G-rated by comparison.
Cinematographer Simon Duggan (The Great Gatsby, etc) has a done a superb job with the visuals, and his widescreen lensing captures the blood soaked battlefield in unflinching fashion and the film looks great. His sepia-toned palette also gives the material an authentic touch, reminiscent of Clint Eastwood’s two WWII movies Letters From Iwo Jima and Flags Of Our Fathers.
Gibson shot the film in New South Wales and the cast is populated by a number of well known Australian actors like House Husband‘s star Firass Dirani, Richard Roxburgh and David Wenham in small roles. Sam Worthington is solid as Doss’ commander who misjudges Doss’s strength of character. Hugo Weaving delivers another excellent performance as Doss’s father, Tom, a WWI veteran who has been left damaged and emotionally scarred by his own experiences of warfare. Rachel Griffiths is solid as Doss’s sympathetic mother Bertha, who copes with the physical and emotional abuse from the alcoholic Tom. Teresa Palmer makes the most of her role as Dorothy, the pretty nurse who works at the hospital where Doss gets his medical training and who is his love interest.
But the film begins to Garfield who delivers a nuanced and complex performance as the resilient Doss. This is the best performance of his career to date, and he brings a quite strength and inherent decency to the role. And surprisingly Vince Vaughn, who has given us a lot of lazy and increasingly irritating performances in sub standard and unfunny comedies over the years, delivers a wonderful and powerful dramatic performance as Howell, Doss’s drill sergeant who questions his suitability as a soldier. While not as memorable as R Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket, Louis Gossett jr in An Officer And A Gentleman, or even Clint Eastwood in Heartbreak Ridge, Vaughn is great and delivers some wonderful zingers and colourful putdowns in one of the best performances of his career.
Hacksaw Ridge is likely to clean up at the forthcoming AACTA awards, and it should also be considered a front runner to pick up awards at next year’s Oscars. This should be a form of redemption and a welcome back to the fold for the wayward Gibson.