Review: Hacksaw Ridge

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Directed by: Mel Gibson
Written by: Robert Schenkkan and Andrew Knight
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Sam Worthington, Luke Bracey

Summary: Desmond Doss enlists in the army as a conscientious objector in World War II. Despite doubt from his officers and fellow soldiers, Doss proves to be a selfless, devoted medic and saves the lives of dozens of men at Hacksaw Ridge during the Battle of Okinawa.

Hacksaw Ridge is like sandwich made with premium deli meat that is slapped between two pieces of Wonder bread. The beginning and ending of this film are just empty calories, even cringe-worthy at times. But what happens in the middle is high-quality filmmaking rich with sustenance and flavor that lingers. 

I was dreading this movie. I deliberately put it off and it was the final Best Picture contender that I saw. And for the first 45 minutes, Hacksaw Ridge was exactly what I expected it to be: poorly written, melodramatic, spiritually preachy, and generic. Then, about half way through, Hacksaw Ridge takes a sharp right turn and becomes a completely different movie, and one that I actually quite enjoyed.

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In the first act of Hacksaw Ridge we learn about Desmond Doss, his upbringing and how he met his wife and became interested in medicine. This exposition is SO dull and clumsy. The only positive thing I was able to point out in the first section of this film was that, despite the accent, Andrew Garfield is very charming as Doss. He goes on to give a stellar performance in the rest of the movie, but even at this early stage, he was the only positive thing I could find. After Doss decides to enlist in the Army as a conscientious objector we have to watch him endure the obligatory “bullying” from the other men at bootcamp and the demoralizing nature of his officers clearly showing their disapproval of his pacifist nature. Desmond Doss really did save dozens of people on Hacksaw Ridge and his story is remarkable – similar to my criticism of Hidden Figures, this is a story that deserved better writing.

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However, once Doss and his unit deploy for Japan the tone shifts entirely, the shiny plastic from the first section of the film is gone and we are left with something gritty and stomach turning. Mel Gibson knows how to make a war film. The overt gore and violence has the potential to appear exploitative or voyeristic, but it served the narrative here. The pile of bodies being carted away as Doss’ unit approaches Hacksaw, the soldier who uses the torso of a dead man as a human shield, the shredded lower half of a young man whose legs have been blown off…it’s horrifying but it really set in the danger that these young men were in and the emotional and physical costs of war. The cinematography throughout wasn’t exceptional but the way this first battle sequence was shot was very effective.

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Battle sequences are really, really difficult to shoot and get right. They are difficult from all different angles- visual effects, stunts, costumes & makeup, cinematography, and most of all, sound. The sound design of a battle sequence has to be recreated almost entirely in post-production. The sound editing includes sound cues for every gun shot, footstep, explosion, and ADR and the mixing balances all of those elements so that the audience feels the jolt of a character being shot while understanding the dialog and still maintaining the background sounds that contribute to our understanding of the environment on screen. Sound design is probably under appreciated in most films, but in battle and action sequences sound editors and mixers can really shine. The sound editing and sound mixing teams do some excellent work on the sound design for Hacksaw Ridge.

Bonus: Kevin O’Connell (sound mixer) is the most Academy Award nominated person who has not yet won an Oscar – he’s been nominated 21 times. Scott Feinberg (the bastard that has my career!) recently interviewed him on The Hollywood Reporter’s Awards Chatter podcast. It’s a really good interview, I’d recommend it.

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When the Oscar nominations first came out I was very surprised to see that Andrew Garfield was nominated for playing Desmond Doss. If anything, there was some buzz around him getting a nomination for Silence, but not Hacksaw Ridge. Based on the trailers, I thought I’d just be watching Andrew Garfield in that notoriously bad episode of Doctor Who for two hours. But I was very, very wrong. He is excellent. Like I mentioned earlier, even in the worst parts of the film, Andrew Garfield manages to make Doss charming and seem genuinely modest. In the battle sequences, he retains that character but its colored with the very human reaction to the horror that is occurring around him. He plays the hero, and the movie is very eager to characterize him as a hero, but he did it in a way that felt very honest. Doss speaks about his faith and his eagerness to fight for his country and I think coming out of the mouth of a lesser actor it could have been nauseating, but Andrew Garfield made it believable. The rest of the performances in Hacksaw Ridge are either forgettable or disappointing (Vince Vaughn was a strange choice for the drill sergeant??) – Andrew Garfield is this movie from a performance perspective.

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I really did not care for the final battle sequence of Hacksaw Ridge and I think it speaks to my distaste for about half of the film. The final battle scene is there purely to glorify the American soldiers and vilify the Japanese. I understand this is a movie that is told from the perspective of Americans and there was some pretty intense “other-ing” that happened during World War II, but Mel Gibson makes just about zero effort to humanize the young men on the other side of this fight. I think Hacksaw Ridge could have been much more interesting and complex if that perspective had been explored. Or the film could have taken a narrower approach – focus more exclusively on Desmond Doss and what he accomplished, the selflessness he showed on Hacksaw Ridge. Don’t glorify this final “win” for the Americans, focus on glorifying this man and what he did.

Final Verdict: B
There is an excellent film buried somewhere between all of the inferior parts of Hacksaw Ridge and that almost makes it more frustrating than if the film had been bad beginning to end. I couldn’t help but imagine that significant changes to the screenplay combined with the skills of John Gilbert, the film’s editor, could have made for a far more intellectually satisfying cinematic experience.

 


Oscar Consideration

Nominated for…
Best Picture
Best Actor, Andrew Garfield
Best Director
Best Editing
Best Sound Mixing
Best Sound Editing

Hacksaw Ridge has a fairly good shot at winning the last three categories. I think it’s pretty much a lock for the Best Sound Editing category and possibly Sound Mixing as well (Arrival is a strong contender). Best Editing is a competitive category this year, but I wouldn’t be completely surprised to see it go to Hacksaw Ridge.

Won…
Best Editing
Best Sound Mixing

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