The true story of the heroics of Pfc. Desmond Doss is nothing short of incredible, unreal, and every other superlative you can come up with. Director Mel Gibson (Braveheart) admirably tells Doss’s story in Hacksaw Ridge, a powerful war drama steeped in grace from its main character and horror from its battlefield sequences. Hacksaw Ridge does not shy away from its unwavering principles in a time where the world was tearing itself apart. While it might feel clichéd at times, the cast of Hacksaw Ridge elevates those moments and give balance to a war drama that doesn’t need to rely solely on war violence to drive the narrative. War dramas are a dime a dozen, but Hacksaw Ridge is without a doubt the best war drama in recent memory and the first movie of the fall that could (and should) generate some Oscar buzz.
The true story of Pfc. Desmond T. Doss (Andrew Garfield), who won the Congressional Medal of Honor despite refusing to bear arms during WWII on religious grounds. Doss was drafted and ostracized by fellow soldiers for his pacifist stance but went on to earn respect and adoration for his bravery, selflessness and compassion after he risked his life — without firing a shot — to save 75 men in the Battle of Okinawa.
Early on in Hacksaw Ridge, we see Desmond Doss at a young age and the experiences that helped shaped him into the man he was. The first half of Hacksaw Ridge is the portion that might feel clichéd, but it’s necessary in order to help understand the character of Doss, his beliefs, and how they affect those around him. Whether or not you are faith-based, director Gibson reveals Doss’ pacifist ways with confidence, which helps drive the latter half of Hacksaw Ridge. Hacksaw Ridge masterfully wrestles with what its main character believes in, as we see those beliefs put to the test more than a handful of times before he reaches the battlefield. And once we see Doss step onto the battlefield of Okinawa, the action sequences feel all the more gratifying after witnessing some of the torture Doss had to endure simply because he refused to fire a bullet.
The battle sequences in Hacksaw Ridge are among the best in a war drama since Saving Private Ryan. Gibson takes us into the barren landscape of Okinawa, which can also be described as “Hell on Earth.” Up close in the trenches of warfare, Hacksaw Ridge does not shy away from its violence, body count, and blood loss in the intensity-sustained, bullet-ridden third act. While all of this is happening, we see Doss weave through combat by reaching out to those injured on the battlefield. Watching Doss hurdle back into the battlefield after rescuing service man after service man is justifiably crowd-pleasing given the harsh criticism Doss got from his peers at the Army base during his training. First-rate cinematography combines with the intense battle sequences to skillfully maneuver through the war-torn battlefield. And all of the action is heard through a Grade-A sound design, which, along with the editing, could receive Oscar nominations.
Top to bottom, the cast of Hacksaw Ridge is outstanding. Andrew Garfield (The Social Network) plays the good-natured Pfc. Doss with simplicity and elegance. At times Doss’ simplicity is portrayed as a product of his upbringing and of the time in which he was raised, it also draws multiple laughs that help lighten the mood throughout the movie. While Garfield has been known for the recently dismal Amazing Spider-Man movies, his portrayal of a WWII pacifist is exceptional and worthy of an Oscar nomination. Vince Vaughn (Wedding Crashers) is sensational as Doss’ Army Sergeant, which could land him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. The introductory scene for Vaughn’s character is quite memorable and is reminiscent of the opening scenes from the classic war drama, Full Metal Jacket. Sam Worthington (Avatar) is great as Captain Glover, Doss’ commanding officer and, honestly, this is the first noteworthy thing Worthington has done since he starred in that sci-fi epic. In smaller roles, Teresa Palmer (Lights Out) is pleasant as Doss’ love interest while Hugo Weaving (The Matrix) is authoritatively moving as Doss’ father, a veteran who recounts the horrors of war in which he saw his friends die.
Stories like the experiences of Pfc. Desmond Doss are why we go to the movies. Not only do we want to experience stories like this in the biggest format possible, but we also want to see these stories unfold from their small beginnings, turn into something prodigious, and end up being both insightful and uplifting. Hacksaw Ridge does all of this thanks in large part to director Gibson, who returns to form and delivers his best movie since Braveheart. Hacksaw Ridge is a compelling look at holding onto hope and in the most extreme circumstance.