When was the last time anyone heard the nameconnected to a film? Oh, he has been in the press fairly often, but for completely different reasons. But let’s be kind and not bring up any of that, it’s not my place to make comment. But Gibson does seem to have avoided the directing chair for quite some time. I’m not entirely sure what brought him back, but I will say that his return did have me worried, especially given the story being a true one in World War II.
I will be honest, I have not done my homework on the events of ‘Hacksaw Ridge’ so for those who are wondering what the historical authenticity of the film is, I cannot say. I’ve heard that it is actually fairly accurate, but given Mel Gibson’s track record with historical films I do have to call in into question. The story that the film ‘Hacksaw Ridge’ provides is a character focused wartime drama about a young medic in the US military called Desmond Doss. Doss refuses to kill people, going so far as to not even hold a gun; this being a war, comes into clash with his superiors and squad members. Despite the ridicule and even life threats he joins the American’s in Okinawa where he saves over 70 of his fellow squad members.
It is very easy to see this film in two parts, not dissimilar to ‘Full Metal Jacket’; we have before he goes to war, where we get character focus and all attention is placed on the actors, and then we have the war film which supplies enough body parts to make Frankenstein’s monster and enough organs to put ‘Repo Men’ to shame. Personally I much preferred the former. Not only was it well written, but it was well directed, paced and acted. Gibson downplays any pretentious tendencies he may have, in hopes of delivering a smooth, simple and completely relatable world for our characters. Everything has some form of gloss over it, which does give the feeling that this is the 1940’s and the costumes help out immensely too. In contrast the wartime part of the film loses all gloss in favour of gritty, bloody and unrelentingly cruel action. Appropriate for a wartime film perhaps, but I say action and not war or battle is because that’s exactly what it comes off as. Any realism is often washed away by people performing stunts that I can’t see actually happening in a way. This involves kicking grenades in mid-air, to using a severed torso as a human shield, to pulling the pin out of an enemy’s grenade and using him to cover the blast. It’s all a bit too fanciful at that point.
But going back to what I touched earlier, the acting from all involved is spot on. This is a pretty impressive cast that includes but is not limited to Andrew Garfield, Hugo Weaving, Sam Worthington, Teresa Palmer and Vince Vaughn of all people. Garfield is the lead man who many have already said deserves an Oscar nomination for his performance, and I must say they may not be wrong. He captures the character of Doss perfectly. The real Doss is dead now, as the film generously tells us in the end, so there is no way of telling what he would say to it or what he was really like. But this fictionalised version of him is very well realised. Garfield had a lot to work with and worked superbly with it, and he’s not an actor I really go for (his Peter Parker in ‘The Amazing Spiderman’ was a disappointment to me). This is helped by the backstory that is meticulously delivered to us, allowing us to see exactly what got him to be the man he is in this moment. There are a number of out of character moments for him, the biggest being his reason for joining comes out of nowhere, and the accent is clearly put on at times, but on the whole it works very well.
However, it was Hugo Weaving as the father that won me over. Weaving (Elrond in ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and Agent Smith in ‘The Matrix’) is a great actor, even when the film is bad he still delivers a more than admirable performance (who else could have given us the Smith laugh from the third ‘Matrix’ movie). In this he plays a drunk, abusive man who beats his family and has obviously had a negative effect of his two sons. But he is also a veteran who lost everything in the Great War, one who hasn’t learned to cope with the loss to this day; he also ultimately wants what’s best for his children too. This is perfectly caught in Weaving’s performance and nobody else could have done better. We even got a surprisingly good dramatic Vince Vaughn performance, and anyone who has seen Vaughn’s more “serious” work knows that that’s a rare thing.
When the action does happen it is undoubtedly impressive but as previously stated is just too fanciful, which is not helped by Gibson’s pretentiousness finally coming out. The film is extremely gory at times but that shouldn’t come as a shock. Also, considering that this is the story of a medic, it feels appropriate. It’s much more a case of strange framing and religious imagery that just jar with what we are meant to be seeing. Religion plays a big part in this story, and from what I hear Doss was a religious man. I have no problem at all with the inclusion of religious themes, especially in a war story. But when they are hammered in and hammered in so often it does start to grate after a while. The pacing is also a little off in the war scenes. It feels like we could have lost about ten minutes of the film without really losing anything to the overall product. I would, however, say that ‘Hacksaw Ridge’ is easily Mel Gibson’s best directing effort. It felt less like ‘Braveheart’ and ‘Apocolypto’ (two films that ultimately disgusted me with their offensive inaccuracy towards the history and cultures of their tales) and more like ‘Saving Private Ryan’ and ‘Gladiator’ (even if it doesn’t reach the heights of those two); finding a story and accounts during a period in history and using them to make something epic and character-based that works as a story in itself.
‘Saving Private Ryan’ it is not but ‘Hacksaw Ridge’ is a perfectly enjoyable and interesting wartime character study. I can see why it is raved about and why it has a shot at the Oscars. Don’t think too much and you’ll ultimately enjoy it for what it is. For me though, it is a one watch wonder, I will never see it again. Still there’s nothing wrong with being happy with one watch. Don’t be afraid to call the medic on this…let’s just hope Gibson keeps up his efforts here in the future too.
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