Friday, December 30, 2016

Contenders ’16: Hacksaw Ridge

Cpl. Desmond T. Doss was a lot like Sergeant York, but he held fast to his religious principles. The Army considered him a conscientious objector, even though he voluntarily enlisted. Despite their best efforts to force him out of the service, Doss persevered all the way to Okinawa and the Congressional Medal of Honor. Deservedly tipped for awards consideration, Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge (trailer here) screened last night as part of MoMA’s annual Contenders series.

Hopefully, this means we can now forgive and forget Gibson’s drunken outburst. The selectivity of the outrage was particularly egregious. After all, Nicki Minaj spent millions to deliberately make a video drenched Nazi-symbolism and got away with a sorry-if-you-were-offended non-apology. Frankly, Gibson is one of a handful of directors who do justice to a film like this. We need them more than we need self-aggrandizing pop ditties.

Regardless, the example a Conscientious Objector winning the Congressional Medal of Honor is one we can all appreciate. Thanks to some boyhood traumas and a father still suffering with PTSD from the first World War, Doss was always a bit socially awkward, but his Seventh Day Adventist faith was very real. He supported the justness of our entry into WWII and duly signed up, but his recruiter clearly misled Doss into believing he could serve as a medic without touching a firearm or training on Saturday (his Sabbath).

Sgt. Howell and Capt. Glover will try to disabuse him of that erroneous notion, but Doss sticks by his guns, so to speak, eventually winning the right to rush into one of the grisliest battles of the Pacific Theater without even a side arm for protection. Yet, his raw courage as a battlefield medic, single-handedly saving seventy-five wounded servicemen (in a manner that is truly better seen than explained), will humble his fiercest critics.

Frankly, Andrew Garfield is embarrassingly miscast in Scorsese’s Silence, but the aw-shucks Doss is squarely in his power zone. To give credit where it is due, Garfield is pretty terrific as the slightly twitchy but deeply devout G.I. Although it is not a super complex role, Teresa Palmer is a humanizing influence on the film as Doss’s understanding fiancée, Dorothy Schutte. Vince Vaughn is nearly unrecognizable unleashing his inner R. Lee Ermey as Sgt. Howell and Sam Worthington is characteristically intense as Capt. Glover. Yet, the most notable supporting player has to be Damien Thomlinson, an Australian veteran of Afghanistan, who lost two legs to an IED, portraying Ralph Morgan, a G.I. enduring a similar experience. Since his dramatic chops are first-rate, many viewers will probably miss the wider significance of his performance, assuming he has the advantage of make-up and prosthetics.

The warfighting scenes in Hacksaw are as intense as anything in Saving Private Ryan, Fury, or any recent WWII film. Yet, the most hair-raising heroism involves the saving rather than taking of lives, which pretty much vindicates Doss, chapter and verse. Still, the first two acts are probably somewhat unfair to the Army. To survive a Hellish battle like Okinawa, the troops need to act as a cohesive unit, which is difficult when resentment and favoritism saps moral. However, Doss really did serve and sacrifice above-and-beyond what he promised (resulting in long-term health issues not covered during the film). He was the real deal, so it is nice to see him finally get wider recognition. Very highly recommended, Hacksaw Ridge should absolutely be in contention, including Gibson for best director. It is now playing in New York at the AMC Empire and screened to a near capacity audience as a selection of MoMA’s Contenders.