From director Mel Gibson comes the true story of a man with deep religious convictions, set against the backdrop of terrible violence. Sounds about right. Both profound and problematic, Hacksaw Ridge is about Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), a pacifist war hero.
A troubled life growing up has led Desmond to vow to God never to so much as touch a gun, so as to avoid that most egregious sin of taking a life. World War II is impossible to ignore though, and just because he won’t fight, doesn’t mean Desmond thinks it fair to not serve. And so he resolves to become a front line medic, so long as he will not be required to bear arms – which turns out to be more a challenge than he anticipated, in more ways than one. Along the way, he proves himself as brave or braver than anyone else fighting the war, becoming a unique hero and beacon of faith along the way.
For better or worse, this film follows one of Mrs. Hamster’s least favorite cinematic trends – it begins with the dramatic conclusion of Desmond being carried off the battlefield, before jumping back into his childhood. Growing up with a decorated yet depressed war hero as a father (an impressive turn by Hugo Weaving), Desmond sees violence every day at home and it becomes as much a part of him as his father. Eventually, however, he reaches a point as a young man where this aspect of his life sickens him and he becomes a new person, devout in his faith as a Seventh Day Adventist, and determined to be the best person in peace he can be, even if it means serving his country in war.
We quickly see Desmond mature and make that fateful decision to enlist, thrown into a den of soldiers, as misfit as any group of rowdy young men. He certainly stands out as different.
What may surprise you is the amount of comedy there is in this dramatic film, up to a point at least. After all, Vince Vaughn portrays his commanding Sergeant, and he seems to be basing the character off cliche’s he’s seen in other movies rather than real life. Laughter filled the theater during his trials and tribulations in boot camp, even as his faith and perseverance are sorely tested, facing a sort of persecution not expected. I suppose it’s supposed to lend a sense of levity to the situation, as well as provide contrast as the audience and the soldiers are forced to sober up quick as we and they are dropped into an impossible situation of death and despair on the front line in Japan. I’m not so sure it works the way intended.
Celebrating bravery, the film does not demean those who choose to take life in the name of defending their country even as it elevates the brave choice not to. Prayer, faith, and personal conviction are forefront here, the film not shying away at all from the celebration of all three. I never felt preached to, however, perhaps because it is in fact a true story, merely being told, so we’re left to take away the message – intended, yes, but not contrived. Occasionally it does feel a little hokey, but the main issues come from a cinematic standpoint.
First off, the sets, both physical and digital, are distractingly fake in a number of scenes, taking us out of the front lines in Japan and onto a Hollywood sound stage. Stone outcroppings look almost like something you would see in a sci-fi tv series cave scene, and the green screen backgrounds during certain key moments are blatant. It really did take me out of the story, which is a shame. The explosions, however, put Michael Bay to shame with their real immediacy and visceral nature.
The second major issue is the length of time this movie takes and the amount of which is spent on gory, gory, details that make the D-day sequence of Saving Private Ryan look relatively tame. It just goes on and on, wearing you down, intentionally or not. Depending on how you look at it, this is either a good thing or a bad thing. It’s certainly effective in replicating, the best a film can, the sense of being in the midst of a war zone for hours on end with horrific scenes of death surrounding you.
The film has its issues, and suffers a bit from promoting a somewhat mixed message of victory over the enemy as well as peace. It is an honorable and respectful tribute, however, to a true hero of the highest sense, a brave man who showed that even when it doesn’t seem to make sense to those around you, sticking to your convictions and having faith in God can lead to great things. For all the faults this movie has, it still shines as a beacon as it stands far above the ranks of the general “faith based films,” something Christian and secular audiences alike will be able to appreciate, even if it may be on different levels.
Brother Hamster did not screen this film
Mrs. Hamster did not screen this film
My rating: Four out of five hats
Hacksaw Ridge climbs into 2,886 theaters, November 4th