War is a dirty business.
(2016) True War Drama (Summit) Andrew Garfield, Hugo Weaving, Teresa Palmer, Vince Vaughn, Rachel Griffiths, Sam Worthington, Richard Roxburgh, Jacob Warner, Firass Dirani, Luke Pegler, Nico Cortez, Goran D. Kleut, Dennis Kreusler, Nathaniel Buzolic, Ben Mingay, Michael Sheasby, Luke Bracey, Harry Greenwood, Damien Thomlinson, Ben O’Toole. Directed by Mel Gibson
It is said that there are no atheists in foxholes, but at the same time there really isn’t a whole lot of room for religion in war either. When one is called upon to kill for king and country (or queen and country as the case may be) one must set aside some of the basic commandments of most religions, as well as the moral compass of society. We generally frown upon killing but wartime gives those who take human life a bit of a pass, although not without consequence. It can take a great deal of courage to set aside one’s morals for the sake of one’s country but it can take a great deal more not to.
Desmond Doss (Garfield) is just an ordinary country boy from the hill country of Virginia back in 1944. He has a deep faith and participates at his Seventh-Day Adventist Church. His father Thomas (Weaving) came back from the Great War traumatized and sometimes violent with his family, particularly with his mother Bertha (Griffiths) whom he loves with a fierce devotion. He rough houses with his brother Hal (Buzolic) – sometimes a little too rough – and pines after the sweet nurse Dorothy Schutte (Palmer) whom he knew from the moment he saw her that he was going to marry her. Well, maybe one day soon.
But there’s a war going on and Desmond doesn’t feel right staying at home while others fight and die for his freedom. He knows he needs to go out there and defend his country, but there’s one problem – his religious beliefs prevent him from killing anyone. In fact, Desmond refuses to even touch a gun. He takes this quite seriously; in fact, he has become a vegetarian (a rarity in that era) because of his beliefs. He therefore decides to enlist in the U.S. Army as a Medic.
The trouble is that somewhere along the line the lines got crossed between Desmond and the military. He is sent for combat training, and combined with his slight frame and his refusal to even defend himself with violence puzzles Sgt. Howell (Vaughn) who is training him, as well as Captain Glover (Worthington), his commanding officer. It also infuriates his fellow soldiers who see it as cowardice and beat him up something fierce.
At last he is given a direct order to shoot a gun, a command he refuses. He is summarily put in the stockade, on his wedding day to make matters worse. He will go up for court martial, which carries with it prison time at Leavenworth. All the boy wants to do is serve his country, and eventually with the help from an unexpected source, he is allowed to do that and for his efforts is shipped off to Okinawa where he will finally get a chance to do exactly what he intended to; to save lives. In the process he will win the highest award our country bestows upon its citizens; the Medal of Honor.
Gibson is not a director who shirks at showing the uglier side of humanity. We see limbs blown off of soldiers, rats gnawing on fresh meat on the battlefield, innards sliding out of horrendous wounds, blood soaking everywhere, bodies blown to bits and the most brutal and savage hand-to-hand combat you’re likely to see. This isn’t for the faint of heart.
Yet at the center of the film is a heart filled with grace. Say what you want about Desmond Doss; he is a man of his word and watching what he did in real life (from most of the sources I’ve read Gibson has stuck pretty close to what Doss really did – even leaving out some feats because he felt that nobody would believe it really happened) is truly inspiring. Heroes wear uniforms, it’s true, but they don’t always beat up the bad guys.
Garfield, who took a lot of criticism for his portrayal of Peter Parker in the Amazing Spider-Man films, has been receiving some end-of-the-year awards attention. His portrayal of Doss is simple and to-the-point. There isn’t a lot of subtlety here and Gibson sometimes goes a little bit over-the-top as when he shows Doss being lowered off the cliff face of Hacksaw Ridge on Okinawa as almost an ascension to heaven. Garfield didn’t need that kind of cinematic excess to make the point for Gibson.
Although Vaughn is the only American in the cast (nearly everyone here is Australian with Garfield and a couple of others who are Brits) the film captures the tones and rhythms of American speech from the era nicely. Gibson also makes the pastoral setting of Lynchburg extremely appealing, as anyone who has visited the town can tell you (yes, we’ve made our pilgrimage to the Jack Daniels distillery – deal with it).
In fact, that setting and pace of life actually slows the film down a bit at the beginning. It really isn’t until the movie gets to Okinawa that things really start to shine here and Gibson shows why he is a very talented man behind the camera. The war scenes are quite simply the best I’ve seen since Saving Private Ryan. It certainly will stay in your memory for quite a while.
Mel Gibson has had a checkered career to say the least. Once one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, he showed every indication that he was going to be one of Hollywood’s biggest directors. Legal issues and some fairly unsavory comments on his part derailed both his acting and directing plans; in fact, this is his first stab at directing in a decade. That Summit has kept quiet his participation, not mentioning by name Gibson’s involvement is a testament to how much of a pariah he became in the industry. One wonders if there isn’t a bit of cinematic self-flagellation going on here. Armchair psychology aside, this is Gibson’s return to form and hopefully he’ll get some opportunities to continue to direct some films that showcase his talents. He certainly has plenty of it to showcase.
REASONS TO GO: A criminally little-known and inspiring story. It might be the best war film since Saving Private Ryan. This is a return to form for Gibson.
REASONS TO STAY: The pacing is a little bit slow in the first third. Some of the images here might be too much for the overly-sensitive.
FAMILY VALUES: Prolonged sequences of graphic war brutality including grisly images and gore.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Doss was the second registered conscientious objector to receive the Medal of Honor – the first was Sgt. Alvin York in World War I. However, while York carried a weapon into war, Doss did not.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/1/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews. Metacritic: 71/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Flags of Our Fathers
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Best and Most Beautiful Things