*This article appears in the October 31, 2016, issue of New York Magazine.
Say what you will about Mad Mel Gibson, he’s a driven, febrile artist, and there isn’t a second in his war film Hacksaw Ridge — not even the ones that should register as clichés — that doesn’t burn with his peculiar intensity. He has chosen exactly the right subject for himself. His hero is the Virginia-born Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), the first “conscientious objector” to receive the U.S. Medal of Honor based on lives he saved as a medic during the spring 1945 battle for Okinawa, one of the most hellish in the entire Pacific campaign. Doss had no problem with serving in the military. He longed to serve. But in insisting that, as a Seventh-day Adventist, he couldn’t carry a weapon, he flouted the central tenet of military cohesion: You protect your fellow soldiers and they protect you. He had to put himself in the middle of the inferno before the Army understood the nature of the protection he offered.
It’s the right subject for Gibson because violence is central to his work. The formula for the action films in which he starred was Make Mel Mad: hurt him, hurt his women, hurt his kids, and stand back. What’s clearer now is that violence — done by him and to him — is a form of self-obliteration. He is, for whatever reason, a man so brimming with self-disgust that he embraces violence as the straightest path to transcendence. William Wallace in Braveheart reaches his apotheosis while being torn apart. Christ earns divinity by having his flesh scourged beyond human endurance. Gibson doesn’t, like Doss, make moral distinctions. The soldiers who kill in Hacksaw Ridge are every bit as vital as his pacifist hero. What he cares about is selflessness on the battlefield, a form of spiritual purity.
As Doss, Garfield takes sweetness to the brink of Gomer Pyle cretinousness, but he’s an all-in actor, and his monomania works. Garfield makes us believe that Doss lives on a different plane — one he glimpsed when, as a child, he struck his brother with a brick and bore the shame of that act before his deeply religious mother (Rachel Griffiths). He makes us believe Doss has styled himself to be as different as possible from his brutal, alcoholic father (Hugo Weaving), who lost his friends in the First World War and still writhes with survivor’s guilt. He also makes us believe he’d get all moony over a nurse named Dorothy (Teresa Palmer) because, well, she’s so pretty it hurts.
The basic-training scenes are perfectly judged (the good script is by Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan), the soldiers violent toward Doss but not inhumanly so. They’re scared, is all. As Doss’s sergeant, Vince Vaughn is at his most charismatic. His first scene — in which he ritually humiliates his men — is perched on the line between ribbing and skewering: a thing of beauty.
But it’s on Okinawa that Gibson’s vision roars to life. The battles are staged and shot with unbearable relentlessness. We see more vividly the relationship of the soldiers to one another and the enemy that pours out of the smoke. We see men dodge not just bullets but the piles of hamburger — no other word comes to mind — that once were fellow humans. For much of the battle, we lose Doss, who’s like a little boy trying to plug a thousand spurting holes in a dike. It’s after the worst battle — when he’s alone atop the ridge, crawling through mud, pulling men to safety, lowering them down a cliff, and rasping “Let me get one more” — that the scale of his heroism is clear. Gibson pushes it in the shots of Doss suspended in the air between heaven and Earth like a wounded angel. But his achievement in Hacksaw Ridge is so large that you’ll probably think, Well, he’s earned that.