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Movie review: Gibson’s ‘Hacksaw Ridge’ tells story of amazing hero

Andrew Garfield stars as a conscientious objector in “Hacksaw Ridge.”
Andrew Garfield stars as a conscientious objector in “Hacksaw Ridge.” Summit

It’s a story of bravery beyond bravery.

The heroic deeds of Desmond T. Doss during the 1945 World War II battle for Okinawa depicted in “Hacksaw Ridge” seem beyond belief. Alone on the island clifftop of the title after his unit had withdrawn under devastating fire from the Japanese, Doss dragged and carried an estimated 75 wounded GIs to the edge of the cliff and lowered them 400 feet to waiting U.S. troops who transported them to aid stations.

He did it unarmed. A medic, a conscientious objector (he preferred the term “conscientious cooperator”), a Seventh-day Adventist whose religion forbade him from carrying a weapon, he was armored only with his faith as he spent seemingly endless hours saving life after life under unimaginably hellish conditions.

For his heroism he was awarded the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military honor.

With Andrew Garfield in the lead role and Mel Gibson in the director’s chair, for the first time in 10 years, “Hacksaw” is an incredibly powerful picture once it gets to the battle scenes. During its opening home-front section when it introduces Doss and sketches his family history and depicts the sources of his deeply held moral convictions it has an old-fashioned somewhat hackneyed feel. That’s particularly the case in a scene showing Doss’ idealized courtship with a lovely nurse played by Teresa Palmer, who is photographed in a way in which she seems to have a glowing nimbus around her.

Garfield’s performance lacks heft in these early sequences, and the goofy lovestruck grin he wears during his courtship does him no favors.

The movie emphasizes that he’s fully committed to the war effort as he insists on being allowed to serve on the front lines as a medic. He embraces his principles with unbreakable resolve, withstanding abuse and harassment from officers and enlisted men in his unit who question his loyalty and his sanity.

Gibson’s forte, proved in “The Passion of the Christ” and 2006’s “Apocalypto,” his most recent directorial effort, is in portraying blood and guts. No surprise then that the carnage in “Hacksaw” is overwhelming as men are shredded with bullets, torn apart by explosions and and burned alive by flamethrowers. The violence is somewhat stylized, with frequent use of slow-motion that draws unneeded attention to the technique involved. But amid the smoke and carnage, Doss hurls himself into his lifesaving work, certainly not oblivious to danger, but dedicated to rescuing as many men as he can.

Taking on “Hacksaw” can be seen as an act of expiation on Gibson’s part. Making a movie that honors a man of irreproachable integrity and phenomenal bravery looks like his way of trying to atone for his well-publicized career-damaging offscreen boorishess and run-ins with the law in the early 2000s. As such, it’s a step in the right direction.

Hacksaw Ridge

 1/2 out of 5

Cast: Andrew Garfield, Sam Worthington, Luke Bracey, Teresa Palmer, Hugo Weaving, Rachel Griffiths.

Director: Mel Gibson.

Running time: 2:18.

Rated: R, for intense prolonged realistically graphic sequences of war violence including grisly bloody images.

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