Oscars 2017: Andrew Garfield is the Unlikeliest Hero in Hacksaw Ridge

Hacksaw Ridge (2016)
Director: Mel Gibson
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Teresa Palmer, Hugo Weaving, Vince Vaughn, Luke Bracey

The 89th Academy Awards will be held on February 26th. In anticipation of the event, I’m going to rundown what I think of each Best Picture nominee. First up is Hacksaw Ridge which is nominated for several Oscars including Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Film Editing and Best Director.

Hacksaw Ridge is a biopic on WWII American combat medic Desmond Doss who describes himself in the film as a conscientious contributor, choosing only to save lives on the battle field instead of killing people.  Doss served in the Battle of Okinawa without holding a combat weapon because of his pacifist and religious beliefs. He courageously saved the lives of many wounded infantry men. 

One of the biggest takeaways is that Desmond Doss’ story is very inspirational. The message manages to shine through despite the overwhelming horror and atrocities of war. The first half of Hacksaw Ridge is the backstory before the Battle of Okinawa. The parts that resonated with me the most in the backstory are the scenes featuring Desmond Doss’ father (Hugo Weaving).

Actor Hugo Weaving’s performance is strong in conveying the anguish of not wanting his son to go through what he experienced in WWI.  The very real notion that war corrupts is reflected in Desmond Doss’s father who went into war with his childhood friends and a youthful, idealistic innocence and came out of it completely broken inside.

The screenplay is well constructed in showing how Desmond Doss’ beliefs are put to the test every step of the way and is given very good reasons to compromise them. So at the heart of Hacksaw Ridge is the noble, uplifting idea of living a principled life that the film sincerely captures.

The way I experience watching war films is different from when I was younger. I think I’ve grown to wholeheartedly empathize with what these young men had to go through in war times. Perhaps it’s also from learning more about history and seeing how the freedoms we enjoy are often taken for granted in current times. When you think about it, the draft is probably the greatest breach of personal and bodily autonomy. To put men in a position to have to kill people and possibly be killed for a cause he may or not believe in deserves a moment of reflection.

In the case of Desmond Doss, he voluntarily enlisted into the military. This had me thinking why do young men go to war. I came across an interesting article on the subject in an interview with a filmmaker/ documentarian. Hacksaw Ridges puts into perspective how Desmond Doss felt it was important to take on the responsibility to do his part to help in a way that was in line with his beliefs. Freedom lies in responsibility. It’s not a message that this film preaches, but is worth noting in light of the current political and cultural climate. 

You can’t discuss Hacksaw Ridge without mentioning the solid performance from Andrew Garfield. From the accent to the physical nature of the role, Garfield is very believable as this corn stalk skinny guy from Virginia. I’m not sure if his role has enough emotional range or complete transformation that the Academy tends to pick for the Best Actor award, but Garfield is a worthy contender.

The second half is where Hacksaw Ridge steps up its game. In lesser hands, epic action scenes can easily deteriorate into a chaotic mess, devoid of genuine tension and audience investment. Here, Mel Gibson’s directorial skills and the film editing are up to the task. It’s a mix of shock and awe: brutal, heartbreaking and even uplifting moments at times.

I don’t see Hacksaw Ridge as being a war propaganda movie. However, having read a little bit about how Doss suffered severe medical problems from his time in the military, I believe this should have been mentioned, even if only in note form before the credits roll. There is an incredible cost that Doss payed for his service to the country and that should not be undervalued or overlooked.

The other part of the film that could have used more finesse is Desmond Doss’ relationship with his wife (Teresa Palmer). It’s only a small segment of the film used to flesh out Doss’ backstory. I enjoyed the humorous elements from Vince Vaughn’s character, the verbally abusive drill Sergeant you see in a lot of military training camp scenes from many movies, though it treadled on being cartoonish in a realistic toned film.

Hacksaw Ridge is a harrowing story that has an inspirational message. The realistic battle scenes are immersive and brutal. Personally I can think of other war films that resonate with me more. Still, Hacksaw Ridge is definitely worth watching and Garfield’s lead performance is strong.

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