Despite deep personal flaws of which by now we are all very much aware, Mel Gibson sure knows how to make an epic movie. Braveheart, though a little on the long side and littered with historical inaccuracies, still resonates today (perhaps also a little to blame for the persistence to make Scotland independent and bring it into the third world). I jest. Though I haven’t viewed Apocalypto in some time, the film is still striking, staying memorable through its authenticity and stunning visuals. Who could forget Passion of the Christ, the controversial record-breaking R rated Jesus-whipping torturous extravaganza that got a bunch of religious panties in a twist?
Hacksaw Ridge excels tenfold, showcasing the best Gibson has yet offer in a directorial regard, somehow overshadowing his other works. Further, Gibson’s war epic possibly stands to be placed on the same pedestal as other classic, innovative and critically acclaimed war films, a pedestal already holding some of the greatest films of all time, let alone greatest war films. Hacksaw Ridge can comfortably sit alongside Saving Private Ryan, Come and See, Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, Letters From Iwo Jima, The Hurt Locker, Schindler’s List, Zulu, The Great Escape and Bridge over the River Kwai with relative masterful ease. This is a mere shortlisted glimpse, a handful of the greatest war films of all time, which could potentially stretch on way down this page if I weren’t careful. As such, the reasons for this notion will be presented accordingly:
Gibson returns to form after some time away from the director’s chair, and then doubles his efforts to create a masterful biopic war drama. Based on a true story (though a little minced up, as you’d expect), nigh on every aspect of the film is produced to near perfection under the obviously keen eye of Gibson, who offers a genuinely gripping and extremely touching retelling of conscientious objector Desmond T. Doss’ humanizing WWII story. Production values are astounding and practical effects are horrific, removing any (if not all) of the romanticization that other films of the genre sometimes offer. Gibson chops the film almost neatly in two, offering a personal look at Doss’s life on the home front, only to encapsulate some of the most brutally realistic combat since Saving Private Ryan‘s D Day scene in the latter half, with human drama emphasising and really lending to the emotional turmoil of vicious fighting the second half contains. Performances under Gibson’s direction are tight, believable and emotionally appealing, making the best use of the best actors for the job, with even Vince Vaughn putting in a spectular performance following his more serious role in True Detective.
In Hacksaw, every filmmaking technique and position is utilised to its full extent, from utterly gut-clenching effects, immersive, booming sound and foley that suck the spectator straight into the squelchy mud and explosive combat of The Battle of Okinawa, and conscious editing that sews the film together superbly. Moreover, Gibson’s past-experiences with the war genre, including Gallipoli and We Were Soldiers, lend well to Hacksaw, and it’s great to see the auteur return to Hollywood with a bang, hopefully with the problems of his past far behind him. If Hacksaw Ridge is indicative of anything, it is that Gibson’s return to the director’s chair could be a welcomed one.
Though there have been many humanizing war stories prior, Hacksaw delivers an epic biopic about a man who refused to bear arms, instead option to go into battle without even touching a rifle and act as a combat medic, eventually earning him the prestigious Medal of Honor. We are a species of war and hate and destruction, there is no denying this, yet we are simultaneously a species of peace, seeking to progress past our primitive notions of conquest for the most part of the general population. The story of Doss’ pacifism, backed by the harsh realities of the Second World War, encapsulate this idea beautifully, highlighting the fact that even amidst great anger and furious vengeance, there can be hope that we will succeed as a species and move past our teething problems (we are still early joiners in the game of big history yet, after all). Though a rather utopian ideal, Doss is the kind of man we wished we heard and saw more of, his story epic and emotional even without being retold masterfully on-screen, captured by industry standard equipment and reenacted by amazing actors who respectfully go all in.
Andrew Garfield’s performance is a career-defining success, and his best to date. Portraying the pacifist protagonist to perfection (as we experience archival footage of Doss himself before the credits role), we see Garfield has adapted to perform the mannerisms and accent of the Seventh-day Adventist, expertly mimicking and staying as true as possible to the source. Garfield is definitely the hero of the hour, but the stellar supporting cast is essential to the story, paralleling conflict with pacifism while studying courage, conviction and character from a range of angles. Sam Worthington makes somewhat of a small and welcome cameo, but Vince Vaughn offers the real surprise, handling the position of an imposing sergeant with finesse and vigor. It is refreshing to see Vaughn in such a role, as with True Detective, and hopefully marks an avenue into a different area of film that will test his limits, evidently not by means of a Psycho remake. Other admiral roles by Hugo Weaving and Teresa Palmer boost overall believability and emotionally gripping nature of the film, with Gibson putting no character to waste.
Production value is where Hacksaw Ridge shines the brightest. With some of the most horrific and astounding combat sequences in a war film for a some time, Gibson recalls the bloody confusing carnage of the opening scene of The Revenant, passing it through the filter of Stephen Spielberg’s D-Day landing and heightening the gloop, guts and viscera, refusing to shy away from horror in the face of valor. Set design is impeccable, with Gibson transforming areas of Australia into Okinawa in a sublime manner, with the aim of using as little CGI and post-production hocus pocus. Instead, he lets practical effects steal the limelight, a way of filmmaking often applauded in the current state of CGI-heavy blockbusters. The audience can believe more so in what they are seeing, and become more immersed as a result, when things actually look, sound and feel real.
Hacksaw Ridge is nothing short of a masterpiece, tying up important, relatable themes with an emotionally charged biopic set against the backdrop of the second world war. Gibson takes the story of a brave man and commits it to film, paying attention to detail and delivering a touching character study, helping to solidify the story and share Doss’ remarkable and important philosophy.
The Film Fanatic