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Hacksaw Ridge (2017)

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We're in the thick of Oscar buzz as the 2017 nominations were announced today.  Suicide Squad (2016) is now an Oscar nominated film (kill me), and a win for Lin-Manuel Miranda's 'How Far I'll Go?' in the brilliant Moana (2016) would make him the youngest ever EGOT winner (what am I doing with my life?).  Last night we caught a showing of a film that appears to be flying under the radar a bit.  I'm not sure if that's anything to do with it's director, Mel Gibson, and his previous misdemeanors, or just show how strong a year this year's line up really is (as a quick aside, I'm really pleased to see 2016's excellent Hell or High Water make the noms).  With the bar set as high as it is this year round in the Best Motion Picture category in particular, it's going to take a lot to surprise and shock.  Gibson's war epic, Hacksaw Ridge did both.
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Just as with Lion (2017) which we caught the night before, Hacksaw Ridge tells a true story so remarkable, I couldn't help feel a bit daft for never having heard it before.  During World War II Desmond Doss felt duty-bound to sign up to serve his country despite being a pacifist, and refusing to pick up a weapon of any kind.  Despite the confrontations he would face throughout his time in service (from his allies as much as the opposition), Doss would go on to stand firm by his beliefs and become the first conscientious objector to be awarded the Medal of Honour, for service above and beyond the call of duty.  There's something incredibly admirable, whatever your own beliefs, of a person that stands by their own in the midst of extreme, and straining situations.  Much had been made of the gore and violence of Hacksaw Ridge.  It's not something Mel Gibson's ever shied away from in his previous work, and when the warning of extreme violence appeared at the beginning I could already sense Charlotte grabbing for her coat for cover.  On this occasion though, it's a necessity, and works as a stark contrast for the good Doss is trying to put back in the world.  The battle scenes are far from an easy watch, but it shouldn't be.  To water them down would be a disservice to those that fought in them, but it's an incredible balancing act ensuring that it doesn't tip over in to gratuitous territory and I thought Gibson managed it brilliantly.


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The film sets up Doss' background, exploring his home, family, and the foundations for his strong beliefs.  Andrew Garfield's Doss is gently, caring, but human - this isn't some unrealistically angelic do-gooder we can't empathise with, but a man just doing his best to be the best he can.  His father, played very smartly by Hugo Weaving, appears to shape much of that upbringing.  From harrowing stories of his time in the army, to the beatings he serves his wife, they all seem to weigh heavily on Garfield's character, and there isn't one scene wasted in the opening act.  The setting of Lynchburg, Virginia seemed a little too idyllic at times for me, although that made more sense later on when contrasted with the grimness of war.  I doubt it will bother me as much on second viewing.  Upon falling for Teresa Palmer's Dorothy Schutte, their relationship is then cut short by Doss' yearning to serve.

The film's second act takes on Doss' fight to be accepted by the army he wants to make a difference for.  Vince Vaughn is great as shouty Sergeant Howell, and does his very best impression of R. Lee Ermery's Full Metal Jacket (1987) drill instructor.  His put downs of each of the squad members are both hilarious, and a rude awakening from the dreamlike feel to Doss' home.  Doss has to face up to some tough questions, and temptations to give in to his beliefs.  How could a man go in to battle with him and not be worried about having to rely on a man unwilling to protect himself with a weapon?  Sam Worthington as Captain Glover was (surprisingly) good as the man forcing Doss to face up to those questions as his time training culminates on his own squad turning on him, and having to face court martial.  Ultimately though, he finds his rightful place in Japan, and it's there that the relentless horrors of war and battle hit the audience in waves.  Somehow Gibson managed to portray a realistic vision of being in the middle of war without plagerising what I thought was the defining interpretation, Saving Private Ryan's (1998) Omaha Beach landing.  The experience is exhausting, and disorientating, and for Doss to make the choices he does in the centre of all of that absolutely blew me away.
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Andrew Garfield's had two films out in as many months about a man facing an extreme test of faith in Japan, but there's only one I'll be watching again.  Hacksaw Ridge should be lauded for one of the most brutally realistic interpretations of war put to film.  However, I was so pleased to find that not only was the story not a vehicle for those scenes, but that they played a critical role in the telling of the story.  The film could easily have fallen in to multiple traps - gratuitously violent, emotionally manipulative, or a celebration of war.  I felt that Mel Gibson avoided each of those pitfalls, and it resulted in a breathtaking film on multiple levels.  At the heart of it is the story of a man, and his desire to make a positive difference in a world desperate to tear itself apart.  As the credits rolled and applause rippled round the audience (the first time that's happened in a film I've seen since 2011's The Artist) I was left completely drained - but in a great way.

Comments

  1. Absolutely agree Phil. Incredible film. Manchester by the Sea is still my favourite.

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  2. What a film that was. Everything would be better with Kyle Chandler in it.

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  3. Interesting review Phil. I actually felt like the film was an injustice to a pretty remarkable human/story. Thought it lacked any real empathy. Especially disappointed at the underdevelopment of his comrades.

    (Also wrote a review myself: http://www.chrisashyes.com/film-reviews-1/film-review-hacksaw-ridge-2016)

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    1. Thanks Chris, really enjoyed reading your review. Interesting how differently we felt about it. I don't think the lack of character development there bothered me too much as doing so may have spread the story too wide and thin.

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    2. Cheers Phil. Are you on Twitter?

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  4. www.twitter.com/philpotts89 Just given you a follow mate

    ReplyDelete

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