As a director, Mel Gibson has visual chops, but that’s about the whole of it. Accordingly, unless someone writes him something of value, it can be a long slog. Hacksaw Ridge, which recounts the incredible story of WWII conscientious objector medic Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) as he staves off court-martial and saves75 lives on a hellish plateau in Okinawa, is that slog.
First, to the history. After Hidden Figures and Sully, I smelled a rat, and sure enough, most of the particulars of those stories – which could have and should have stood on their own – were b.s. After Hacksaw, I was sure I’d hit the trifecta. I was wrong. Doss’s story is basically retold straight. The problem is that his story is so incredible, Gibson should have said, “You know, let’s leave this part out, or people are going to start rolling their eyes.” For me, the part when Dawes has a grenade thrown at him, and he wheels around and gives it a back-kick reminiscent of Uma Thurman in Kill Bill or top form Pele’ – that was the moment. But hell if Doss didn’t do just that. From History v. Hollywood:
On the night of May 21, 1945, just a half mile past the escarpment on Okinawa, Desmond’s unit inadvertently walked into a company of Japanese soldiers. The unit engaged in hand-to-hand combat with the enemy and Desmond scrambled to treat the wounded. “They begin to throw these hand grenades,” recalled Desmond. “I saw it comin’. There was three other men in the hole with me. They were on the lower side, but I was on the other side lookin’ when they threw the thing. I knew there was no way I could get at it. So I just quickly took my left foot and threw it back to where I thought the grenade might be, and throw my head and helmet to the ground. And not more than half a second later, I felt like I was sailin’ through the air. I was seein’ stars I wasn’t supposed to be seein’, and I knew my legs and body were blown up.” The blast left 17 pieces of shrapnel embedded in Desmond’s body, mostly in his legs. –The Conscientious Objector Documentary
Now, to the film. I don’t know what to say about the non-combat portion, where we see Desmond as a boy and later in basic training. As dewy-eyed hokum goes, this is buffed to almost the point of art form. Garfield is so damned earnest in his role he threatens veering into Gomer Pyle and even Forrest Gump territory, but to his credit, his ardor actually works. He inhabits the role fully and effectively communicates the viewpoint of a simple, decent and brave man. Unfortunately, those around him are so melodramatic or stock, it is hard not to stifle a laugh. His sweetheart (Theresa Palmer) is the vintage beauty in the gleaming white nurse outfit, the sun streaming through her lovely hair. His mother and father (Hugo Weaving and Rachel Griffiths – Mel takes care of his Aussie own) are damn near operatic. And my God, his introduction to his unit threatens to break into song, as every stereotype steps up to say “Hey, I’m the Italian/Hollywood/Tough/Nice/Shy/Hick guy” and “Howya doin’, goodtomeetcha’, heytheresport, getalookatdosegams, fuggedaboudit”
“WE ARE THE BOYS OF CAMP JACKSON . . .
OFF TO FIGHT THE JAPS!
CAN’T WAIT TO SEE SOME ACTION
IN TOJO’S ASS WE’LL PUT SOME CAPS.
WE ARE THE BOYS OF CAMP JACKSON . . . . .”
After this incredibly uncomfortable segue, the scenes of Doss’s trial by fire to get him to quit and his convictions being challenged during basic training are perfunctory. One gets the sense Gibson wants to get to the battlefield. Understandably so. Mel does maelstrom and carnage better than most, and the battle scenes in Hacksaw Ridge are fluid, inspired and riveting.
But that ain’t nearly enough.