Real life has always proved to be fruitful ground for filmmakers, dating right back to the beginnings of film. Stories set at times of war, especially those with a heroic angle, have been particular favorites. In a way, Mel Gibson's latest film Hacksaw Ridge follows in that tradition as it recounts the story of Desmond Doss who earned the U.S military's highest award for honor and bravery without ever firing a shot. It's a visceral and at times inspiring tale.
The film is anchored by its lead actor, British actor Andrew Garfield (best known for the title role in the two Amazing Spider-Man movies). Despite being British, Garfield plays the role of a young man coming from Appalachia exceedingly well right down to his accent. Garfield is the film's focus and he plays the various aspects of Doss well from young man in West Virginia to someone who goes on to do something truly incredible. In fact, Garfield's performance is superior to the material he sometimes has to work from but nevertheless remains an often effective and even moving performance.
Having said that, now seems a good moment to talk about the script from writers Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan. Bringing true stories to the screen is, as I said above, part and parcel of what Hollywood does. That a good deal of the actual events make their way to the screen is something that is commendable though the film's first half sees it engaging it a significant amount of hyperbole and cliché regarding Doss' life before the war as well as his treatment by his Army unit, including a court-martial sequence that is largely a work of fiction. That the film has a strong faith based message to it is clear, though not out of place given both its subject better and it being a real-life story. That the film tries to cite this as part of an ongoing 21st century political narrative of "a war on Christians" come across quite hollow and does the film no favors.
Indeed the film really finds its feet when it moves on to firmer territory: the Battle of Okinawa and the attempt to take the titular Hacksaw Ridge. Though it seems to condense things down to a single day and night, by and large this part of the film faithfully tells Doss' truly incredible efforts during one of the bloodiest battles of the Pacific theater of war. Not that events needed much hyperbole because the facts alone are incredible enough. Gibson as director presents a visceral portrait of battle, one that is free of more traditional war film heroics but most certainly full of 'the fog of war' and which finds moments of absolute terror as well. For all the faults with the first half of the film, it's latter half makes for compelling viewing.
Though it isn't always easy viewing. This portion of the film is not for the faint of heart as Gibson, who showed he was not afraid of gore in his two earlier outings as director, used it to full effect here. Here though it is used in service of conveying an incredible real story from the comparative recent past and which helps to convey the magnitude of what Doss went through. It speaks to the skills of not Gibson as director but to the stunt, effects, and make-up teams in bring this harrowing vision to life.
Indeed from a purely production side of things, the film is solid. The production design and costumes do a very nice job of recreating America on the brink of and during the Second World War even before it gets to the battlefield. The cinematography of Simon Duggan is something to behold across the length of the film as it takes in not just the inherent natural beauty of Appalachia but half a world away to the bombed out island of Okinawa. It's also interesting that the film doesn't put much reliance on CGI effects or at least on all too apparent ones. The results make for a solid recreation of the era as well as a well produced film.
That phrase could very well sum up Hacksaw Ridge as a film. It's a well produced piece of work with a compelling and believable performance from its leading an. Though the film's first half often delves too far into the bags of hyperbole and cliché, the second half of the film becomes one of the most visceral and inspiring pieces of film-making in recent memory. it may not be a perfect film but it is definitely a good one that is more than worthy of viewing.
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