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Andrew Garfield stars as Desmond Doss in Hacksaw Ridge. Photo courtesy Lionsgate.

The attempted career rehabilitation of Mel Gibson continues with Hacksaw Ridge, a World War II film about a real-life American soldier who became a hero without killing anyone. His career troubles meant he had to make it in his Australian homeland, and you’ve never seen so many Aussie actors portraying Americans in one place. This epic comes off more or less like he intended, though that also means it could have been better.

The movie begins with Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) growing up in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, where his violent, drunken father (Hugo Weaving) and his gentle, God-fearing mother (Rachel Griffiths) help turn him into a committed pacifist. However, when war breaks out, Desmond feels wrong to stay behind while all the other men in his hometown have gone to fight, so he enlists in the Army to serve as a medic. He won’t even touch a weapon in basic training, which gets him beaten by his fellow recruits and thrown in the brig by his superiors. Yet they can’t drum him out, which they’ll be grateful for later.

You may be interested to know that the movie contains a heroic, battle-tested Jewish medic (Ori Pfeffer) who advises Desmond how to survive under fire. Elsewhere, there’s no such subtlety in the depiction of Desmond’s civilian life before the war, and the basic training sequences yield only one comic turn, this by Vince Vaughn as a drill sergeant. The proceedings turn particularly cringe-worthy and cutesy during the romance between Desmond and a pretty nurse (Teresa Palmer). We see them climbing the mountains of New South Wales (standing in for Virginia), and the director photographs the landscape in gleaming sunlight, dwarfing the actors. It’s typical Gibson — even when he’s conjuring up a moment of beauty, he manages to be a bully about it.

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Gibson’s touch is so heavy-handed that war might be the only subject suited to him. When the Americans land in Okinawa, that’s when the director feels in his element. He does particularly well by the climax of the film, the lonely night that Desmond spends on the titular mountain ridge after the Americans have been driven off by well-fortified Japanese troops. Dodging enemy patrols, Doss was able to rescue 75 wounded soldiers, finding them and lowering them by rope to safety one by one and even finding time to treat a few wounded Japanese as well. As Desmond quietly goes about his monumental task, praying “Dear Lord, help me get one more” after each successful trip, Hacksaw Ridge does justice to the courage and conscience of this man of nonviolence. This could have been a great film at 100 minutes or so. Too bad it runs 131.

[box_info]Hacksaw Ridge
Starring Andrew Garfield. Directed by Mel Gibson. Written by Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan. Rated R. [/box_info]

 

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