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Review: Mel Gibson overdelivers in ruthlessly realistic 'Hacksaw Ridge'

Director Mel Gibson, center, and actor Vince Vaughn on the set of the film Hacksaw Ridge. Vaughn’s role as a sergeant isn’t convincing.
Published Nov. 1, 2016

If any filmmaker is ruthless enough to make war truly look like hell, it's Mel Gibson. We saw what he did to Jesus. You can imagine how Gibson cranks the meat grinder with hordes of World War II soldiers, even in tribute to a pacifist.

Hacksaw Ridge is the story of U.S. Army medic Desmond T. Doss, the first conscientious objector to win a Congressional Medal of Honor. Doss refused to carry a weapon due to religious beliefs forbidding him to kill, yet treated and evacuated dozens of wounded soldiers during the battle for Okinawa island.

Doss is an astounding example of heroism, bringing out Gibson's brawniest filmmaking skills when bullets fly, flamethrowers fry and, curiously, the hero all but disappears from his movie for a while. Direct compression here, a morphine dose there, while the Oscar-winning director focuses on various, bloody reasons why medics are necessary on a battlefield. Or else body bags.

We sense Gibson's excitement behind the camera, panning past war carnage exceeding Saving Private Ryan's vaunted D-Day opener. As with Steven Spielberg's movie, there are questions of how much bloody realism is necessary to tell the intended story, and how much do movies honor our war dead by explicitly showing how they died?

Gibson's reply would likely echo his response to criticism of graphic violence in The Passion of the Christ: to know the extent of sacrifice, we must witness the suffering endured. Except we've already done that with Doss and far less bloodshed in the first two acts. Also, his isn't among the flesh mutilated, torched or scattered by mortar blasts. The sequence becomes gratuitous, repeating its technical proficiency in faking gaping wounds and bloody pulps.

Eventually, Hacksaw Ridge returns its full attention to Doss, played well by Andrew Garfield in an arc from aw-shucks Virginian (and virgin) to boot camp bully target to battleground savior. Garfield's beaming face from the first act is dimmed by now, a different look of determination than while wooing his future wife, Dorothy (Teresa Palmer), defying an antiwar father dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder (Hugo Weaving) or defying hazers operating on the orders of a tough sergeant (Vince Vaughn) who considers his anti-weapon stand as insubordinate.

It's a tough road to that doggedly heroic moment for Doss, not much different from any other Army barracks outcast story except his moral reason for being cast out. The first act sets up his future wife as Doss' comely, corny reason to get home alive, with Palmer as a nicely Witherspoon-ish compliment to Garfield's courtliness. Meanwhile, the paternal conflict spurs Weaving into overacted fits of lip-quivering alcoholic rage verging on parody.

The second chapter takes Doss to basic training with Vaughn immediately taking the film's tone off-course. His introductory berating of recruits isn't cruel like R. Lee Ermey's in Full Metal Jacket, but comical, practically a standup routine feeling out of place. Vaughn's casting alone had viewers chuckling at first sight, expecting as much. His character gets serious as Doss faces a court-martial and is assaulted by bunkmates, but Vaughn isn't convincing except under fake fire in combat scenes.

Everything leads to Okinawa, and Gibson wading into epic slaughter in which he's obviously more comfortable creatively. The battleground has a unique feature, a sheer rock wall that must be scaled to reach a plateau and possibly immediate death. The towering ridge also makes Doss' heroism more difficult, lowering casualties by rope one-by-one. The indelible aspects of Hacksaw Ridge are constructed around that precipice, adding to the inherent suspense.

There's a lot to like about Gibson's movie in that third act and an epilogue with archival footage of Doss and others played by actors in the film. And, yes, one admirable thing about Hacksaw Ridge is its crew's expertise in recreating combat horror, vigorously captured by cinematographer Simon Duggan. Yet, it feels disingenuous to celebrate Doss' moral code by vividly pretending to demolish it. Nobody disputes the notion that war is hell. But maybe this particular war movie didn't need that.

Contact Steve Persall at spersall@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.

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