Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Nov 08, 2016 6:54 pm 
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Mel Gibson's new film is paradoxical: an ultra-violent war story about a saintly, persecuted conscientious objector who won't touch a weapon. It's a study in conviction and courage - long Gibson preoccupations. It's a Mel Gibson movie, so the battle sequences reach a new level of violence. It's not tasteless or exploitive or sadomasochistic as in Passion of the Christ and Apocalypto. It's simply so high powered and fast and intense that up on the Okinawa ridge you can hardly tell what's going on and can't imagine how anyone can survive. This is the part Gibson does best, and the editing in the key sequence, where young hero Desmond Doss (played with stillness and fervor by Andrew Garfield in his greatest role yet) rescues 75 wounded men, is good enough to deserve an Academy Award nomination. This World War II film is more successful and more accessible to a wide public than perhaps anything Gibson has hitherto done as a director.

The earlier sequences of Doss's romancing and army signup and family conflicts are conventional and old fashioned but successful and well crafted. The middle ones of training at Fort Jackson where Doss is harried and court marshaled, dominated by Vince Vaughan's belligerent, dryly humorous Sgt Howell, tread familiar ground, in particular entering Full Metal Jacket territory. But again this is clear, well made, highly effective filmmaking.

All these events serve to elucidate this unique character. This is Garfield's movie. He gives it substance and humanity, which it has abundantly, and this character magnifies all the innate qualities previous films have hinted at. There is a feminine sensitivity and delicacy, and a timidity, though his innate physicality counteracts that, giving him fluidity and strength. Garfield himself is an oddball, delicate and yet strong, like this protagonist.

Desmond Doss, the gentle Seventh-day Adventist from Virginia, was a real-life war hero who received the Congressional Medal of Honor (as well as Bronze Stars), the only C.O to do so from World War II. Like another great American movie this year, Moonlight, this one is in three distinct parts. The earliest sections show Desmond's childhood, in which he has violent fights with his brother and must deal with a father who sank into alcoholism after a bitter experience in World War I. But the essential fist segment is the one in which the protagonist woos local nurse Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer) while also realizing he wants to join the war and be a medic. Garfield's disarmingly soft voice and wide grin have a little of Jimmy Stewart in them but there's a boldly goofy edge: Doss strikes people as a borderline nut case, but his love and conviction win over Dorothy completely.

Doss is brutally hazed by his fellow soldiers urged by Sgt Howell in an effort to punish him for what they see as cowardice and get rid of him because they think he will be a liability in combat. (Strangely enough, the training sergeant with the unit at Fort Jackson goes on to serve with them in the Pacific - was this true?) Desmond takes every beating, but being misunderstood saddens him. The unkindest cut is barring him from going on leave so his wedding to Dorothy can't take place. The court marshall is a complicated business involving his father's barging in in his WWI uniform with a letter from a superior officer he fought with that ends the proceedings. Did it happen like this? All these things are involving storytelling and help develop our sense of Desmond's conviction and strength and sensitivity.

But the heart of the film, which skips an earlier phase of the real Doss' military service when he won two Broze Stars in Guam, is his greatest exploit in the hellish battle in Okinawa when he rescues many wounded solders (the standard number is 75, an estimate) and lowers them down to the beach with ropes to be evacuated, going back, and back, and back, while being fired upon by the Japanese and eventually losing backup from below. The battleground was called Hacksaw Ridge because it was so brutal: it chopped up one American unit after another, and we see an earlier group carted out in piles of corpses as Desmond's unit arrives. Japanese soldiers both manned bunkers and rushed invading American soldiers so whole battalions were wiped out.

Not only is Gibson's battleground, at its most intense periods, so violent you wonder how anyone could survive. You also ponder how extraordinary, seemingly hopeless, is a the work of a medic - and yet many if not most of these men, it seems, Desmond is saving. You can say this isn't up to Spielberg's Private Ryan virtuosity. but it is less self-conscious, more direct, more gut-wrenchingly visceral.

Desmond's fellow soldiers find out how profoundly they had misjudged him when they called him an egotist and a coward. His quality of an oddball serves him in his heroic action because he is alone up there and does his rescuing in his own idiosyncratic way. This is a sequence you could watch over and over, if you could bear to, such is its intensity and complexity. This is conventional filmmaking that is also in some respects unique.

Hacksaw Ridge, 131 mins., debuted at Venice, and opened in US theaters 4 Nov. 2016. Screened for this review at AMC Village 7 on 8 Nov. 2016.

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