Shockingly for the Oscars, this is another true story – this time that of an American pacifist who became a war hero without ever touching a gun. But don’t worry, viewing audiences, this movie isn’t here to make you think, or challenge your preconceptions on war, morality, or anything else. Mel Gibson, returning to bloody form as the director of this paint-by-numbers war movie, goes out of his way to make it perfectly clear that while protagonist Desmond Doss won’t pick up a weapon himself, he’s A-Ok with everyone around him mowing down those evil Japs, who are variously referred to in the film as devils, animals, and unkillable monsters.
The first hour or so of the movie is a sweet, sometimes overly sentimental coming-of-age story set in rural Virgina. Andrew Garfield’s Oscar nominated portrayal of Doss certainly sells the character’s humble, wide-eyed sincerity, but there are some strange choices (Doss grins and chuckles continuously at incongruous moments throughout), and the character’s unnuanced moral certitude ends up playing as simple rather than determined.
As we move into act two, Doss enlists and heads to a Full Metal Jacket-style boot camp, where Vince Vaughn takes a laughably unbelieveable turn as the film’s “hard-assed” drill seargent, who will of course underestimate our hero and eventually learn the error of his ways. We also meet a slew of war-movie clichés masquerading as characters (Italian guy, guy who gambles, intellectual soldier, bully), the names of whom you will struggle to vaguely recall as they’re either tragically killed by the Japanese, or heroically saved by Doss in the third act.
The second hour of the movie is basically one interminable – but expertly executed—battle scene. From a technical standpoint, the action is incredibly impressive, but for a film about a professed pacifist, its treatment of violence is almost pornographic, with numerous slow-motion shots of Japanese soldiers being mowed down by flamethrowers, bullets and bayonets.
The ostensible message of the film, which basically boils down to “don’t judge a book by its cover” (I’d argue that the actual message is something more along the lines of “America is awesome, and you should probably join the army”) is rammed down the audience’s throat to the point where at least 3 characters literally just say it out loud.
Verdict: If the word “pacifist” in the beginning of this review made you roll your eyes in contempt, this unsubtle American propaganda piece is probably the film for you.
Prediction: Along with Best Picture, Hacksaw Ridge is nominated for Directing, Film Editing, Sound Editing and Sound Mixing, and Andrew Garfield is nominated for his Leading Role performance. It won’t get any of the three big ones, and Film Editing surely belongs to Arrival or La La Land, but I’m betting that the explosive and frenetic sounds of war will inch ahead of the movie musical for Sound Editing.