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'Hacksaw Ridge' an extraordinary true story

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Film tells unbelievable tale of one WWII Medal of Honor winner

The dramatization of a true story can prove difficult. Maintaining the core reality of the narrative while also finding ways to creatively engage is a tough balance to strike.

Of course, it's even harder when the real-life story is the kind of bold and unbelievable tale that would be dismissed as outlandish and unrealistic if it were fiction.

That's the monumental task inherent to a film like 'Hacksaw Ridge,' the true story of Desmond Doss, a young man who served in the Pacific theater during World War II and ultimately wound up as the first conscientious objector in American history to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his bravery in the midst of the battle at that titular site.

Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield, '99 Homes') lives in the hills of Virginia. He's a God-fearing young man living with his pious mother Bertha (Rachel Griffiths, 'Mammal') and his self-loathing father Tom (Hugo Weaving, 'The Dressmaker'), an ex-soldier using alcohol to dull painful memories of his time in World War I.

With the country in the throes of World War II, Doss feels it is his duty to enlist and serve his country. Despite the misgivings of his parents and his nurse girlfriend Dorothy (Teresa Palmer, 'Lights Out') and despite his deeply-held religious objections to violence as a Seventh-Day Adventist he does just that, intending to serve as a combat medic.

As you might imagine, a soldier who refuses to touch a weapon presents some difficulties. Doss's fellow new recruits led largely by one particular hard case named Smitty (Luke Bracey, 'Point Break') quickly grow to despise him, while Sergeant Howell (Vince Vaughn, 'Term Life') and his commanding officer Captain Glover (Sam Worthington, 'Everest') seek ways to encourage him to quit.

Despite numerous incidents - up to and including a court-martial Doss refuses to quit or compromise his beliefs, ultimately winning the right to accompany his unit to Okinawa, where they are part of the force tasked with taking the strategically key Hacksaw Ridge. A massive battle ensues against the Japanese forces; there are heavy casualties, though Doss manages to save several wounded men throughout.

However, a huge push from the Japanese leads to a call for American retreat and an artillery barrage from their naval gunships. However, Doss refuses to leave; instead, he spends the subsequent day and night searching the top of the ridge for American wounded, dragging them to the edge of the ridge and lowering them down the cliff to the relative safety below.

That's right one of the greatest American heroes of WWII never fired a shot.

It's legitimately difficult to believe that Desmond Doss actually existed. To think that any man could be possessed of that kind of courage, the bravery required to walk onto a battlefield armed with nothing more than faith and a desire to help save the lives of his fellow soldiersit's simply extraordinary.

'Hacksaw Ridge' is not an easy film to watch. While the movie takes its time in unfolding, allowing us to get to know Desmond Doss the man quite well before moving on to Desmond Doss the soldier, once we arrive on the battlefield, things get brutally intense. The graphic nature of war is presented with an unflinching eye; at times, the intensity borders on the overwhelming.

The film marks Mel Gibson's return to the director's chair for the first time in a decade his last offering was 2006's 'Apocalypto' - but he doesn't appear to have lost a step. He's demonstrated an eye for balancing the intimate and the epic where warfare is concerned in the past; he brings that understanding of the kinetic violence of war to this film. He captures the visceral brutality of combat while also managing to spin a story about a man willing to put his life on the line and sacrifice everything in the name of his principles and his faith.

Andrew Garfield turns in the performance of his career as Desmond Doss; he breathes life into his portrayal of the soft-spoken soldier. It would be easy to play Doss as a saint or a cipher; Garfield does neither, instead allowing the man's innate sincerity and belief to serve as the guiding force of his performance. There's a lot of good work from the supporting cast as well. Weaving and Griffiths offer their usual strong work as Doss's parents, while Palmer transcends the standard love interest tropes. The actors playing Doss's fellow recruits are uniformly excellent Bracey is a particular surprise while Worthington and Vaughn are outstanding. Vaughn in particular has turned in a performance that could place him on some short lists come awards season. Seriously he's that good.

'Hacksaw Ridge' is a powerful film, illustrating not only the horrors of war but the ability of men of character to transcend those horrors. It tells the tale of an extraordinary man, one whose story would be utterly unbelievable if it didn't happen to be true. Captivating and intense and surprisingly beautiful 'Hacksaw Ridge' serves as an engaging harbinger of prestige season's arrival.

[5 out of 5]

Last modified on Tuesday, 31 January 2017 19:29

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