Blu-ray Review: Hacksaw Ridge

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Hacksaw Ridge, the World War II biopic about real-life "conscientious collaborator" Desmond Doss, received six Academy Award nominations including Best Picture. Mel Gibson received a nod for Best Director, as a well as star Andrew Garfield for Best Actor. The film is earnest, heartfelt, and absolutely worth seeing. It's also cliched at times, often wallowing in shopworn 'war movie' cliches. Characters in Desmond's company seem to have stepped out of '40s-era jingoistic propaganda flicks. And there's absolutely no shred of poetry or nuance in Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan's screenplay.

But Garfield makes Doss a flesh and blood human being, more than just a symbol of U.S. wartime integrity. Doss, up until now a relatively obscure footnote in WWII history, was steadfastly against violence, killing, and even the handling of firearms due to his devout religious beliefs. But he was compelled by an overwhelming sense of duty to enlist in the Army and do his part. Without so much as touching a weapon, he served as a combat medic and saved the lives of an estimated 75 soldiers who would've been left for dead during the Battle of Okinawa. He became the only conscientious objector (his official classification, though Doss preferred the aforementioned word "collaborator") to receive the Medal of Honor in World War II. 
hacksaw ridge 1.jpg Despite Gibson's heavy-handed attempts to turn Doss into a Christ surrogate, Garfield shades Desmond with complexity. Unfortunately, Desmond is the only full-bodied character in Gibson's oppressively lead-footed epic. Early on we see him as a child dealing with a violent streak inherited from his PTSD-suffering, World War I vet dad, Tom (Hugo Weaving). His mother (Rachel Griffiths) helped embed "Thou shalt not kill" deep within his subconscious.

Gibson takes Desmond's faith at face value, presenting the Army brass who try to remove him from the military as unenlightened and villainous. There isn't any room for balanced, thoughtful debate in Hacksaw, despite Garfield's valiant efforts to wedge something more into his character as written (and directed). Once the film reaches the imposing titular cliff (more accurately called the Maeda Escarpment) on the Okinawa coast, all remaining time is devoted to depicting the brutality of war. The slow motion, soaring score (by Rupert Gregson-Williams), and buckets of blood and guts sometimes bring to mind the war movie parody Tropic Thunder. It's a bit over the top at times. Not that I'm doubting at all the atrocities were at least this bad, but seeing it over and over doesn't add to the storytelling nor the emotional impact.

Obviously Gibson wanted to show us that war is hell, but visually there's nothing here we didn't already see 20 years ago in Saving Private Ryan. Once you've seen one digital squib effect, you've kind of seen them all. The lack of real characters, as opposed to stock war movie "types," really hurts Gibson's approach to the battle half of Hacksaw. Everyone except Garfield blends together as we watch Desmond rescue one downed man after another. Why then is Hacksaw Ridge ultimately so easy to recommend? Because in the end the story of Desmond Doss is so worthy of knowing and will certainly prompt discussion among all who see it. Gibson's film could've been more artfully made. But honoring Doss (and all WWII veterans) is important and Gibson fully realizes that. So does Garfield, whose fully-committed performance is unmissable.

Lionsgate's Blu-ray (also available in 4K UltraHD) offers sterling A/V specs (including a Dolby Atmos mix that defaults to a still-astounding TrueHD 7.1). "The Soul of War" is an must-see 70-minute 'making of' that goes well beyond the typical promotional hype that often dominates such featurettes. There's real substance here, both in terms of telling the story of the movie itself and the late Desmond Doss' real story (Doss passed away in 2006, his son is interviewed here).


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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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