Hacksaw Ridge, Mel Gibson’s latest directorial effort, is an exercise in sentimentality. The film adapts the early military career of World War II veteran Desmond Doss (played by Andrew Garfield), the first conscientious objector to be awarded the Medal of Honor and is split into two distinct sections: the events leading up to Doss’ deployment to the Pacific Theater and Doss’ participation in the taking of the Maeda Escarpment during the Battle of Okinawa.
The first half of the movie is dripping with sentiment. The second part is a bit more complicated.
The film’s opening act shows us the fictionalized Doss’ home life. We see him as a child, laughing and frolicking through the woods with his brother, and as a young man haplessly flirting with a nurse in a romance that feels over-written and choreographed (the romance here lacks the authenticity and spark of, dare I say, Amazing Spider-Man 2). Hugo Weaving turns in a fantastic performance as Doss’ father, a shell-shocked WWI veteran, and there are compelling moments of Doss standing by his pacifist beliefs, but much of Hacksaw Ridge’s first half feels like a series of Hallmark Cards, which makes the second half’s turn on a dime to utter chaos and carnage all the more shocking.
The warfare in Hacksaw Ridge is where Gibson absolutely shines as a filmmaker. In the thick of it all there is often zero sentiment. It’s gruesome and primal and uninhibited. There are entire portions of the film scored only with screams and explosions and all the background information provided by the film’s first half instantly evaporates. It’s overwhelming and as a result, when Doss is demonstrating his heroism it’s exciting and horrifying and emotionally draining.
Hacksaw Ridge is at its most effective when it is stripped of its sentimentality and exposition, though even then it feels problematic. The Japanese soldiers in the film don’t feel like an army made of men, they feel like a nameless, faceless, borderline paranormal force of nature, leaving Hacksaw Ridge feeling like a WWII movie made with a WWII mindset. And for a film about a man who refused to kill, Hacksaw Ridge is absolutely steeped in killing and death and limbs and guts and brains.
Stripping the sentimentality of its first chapters allows Hacksaw Ridge to ascend to the heights it does when everything hits the fan, but even against the heat of grenades and gunfire, it slowly drips back in as the film ultimately arrives at the swelling orchestral accompanying f soldiers into battle that has come to define war films. It’s hard to bash a WWII movie with any particular vigor for being a WWII movie, but Hacksaw Ridge could have been so much more.
All our heroes are killers. Rick Grimes, Han Solo, Iron Man, Captain America, freaking Batman. It’s nothing for a protagonist to kill. It’s expected. Hacksaw Ridge has a real life protagonist who goes out of his way not to kill for any reason. It’s a powerful thing to denounce any and all justification of killing, and as we see based on Doss’ experiences it’s a difficult path to follow, even for modern cinema. What’s the last movie you saw without a gun in it? Are you sure?
Hacksaw Ridge isn’t your typical WWII narrative, but it’s told like one. The same tropes in WWII films about the valor and sacrifice of vanquishing one’s enemies are used here in a film about the valor and sacrifice of deciding not to.
Hacksaw Ridge’s sentimentality ultimately does more harm than just making its first half feel corny and dragging the second half down from an engaging frenetic horror to a generic war movie. It fuels the feeling that Hacksaw Ridge is a film about a man who refuses to kill that doesn’t really have any misgivings about war.
I suspect telling Desmond Doss’ story requires a new kind of WWII film, and Hacksaw Ridge ain’t that.