“Two Jews” is a new arts column in which Willis Weinstein ’20 and Sam McCarthy ’20, both Jewish, discuss films. 

Willis Weinstein: Today, Sam and I will be reviewing Mel Gibson’s new film, “Hacksaw Ridge.”

WW:“Hacksaw Ridge” is based on the true story of World War II hero Desmond Doss, a medic in the battle of Okinawa. Growing up in a violent household, Doss is inspired by his religion, Seventh Day Adventism, to become a pacifist. His faith in God continues to blossom after falling head over heels in syrupy sweet, heteronormative love with Dorothy, a nurse. Following Pearl Harbor, Doss enlists in the Army, but refuses to undergo weapons training on account of his pacifist beliefs. His beliefs get him beat up by fellow soldiers and scorned by officers, but Doss nonetheless sticks to his ideals, and completes basic training. He’s then stationed at Hacksaw Ride, a rocky cliff atop which a bloody, stagnating battle is taking place. Following a Japanese assault, U.S. troops retreat from the cliff, but Doss stays behind. He evacuates wounded soldiers by lowering them over the cliff with a rope. Doss gets within a hair of death’s reach multiple times, but nonetheless performs his duty admirably, earns the respect of his comrades, and wins the Medal of Honor.

Sam McCarthy: Unfortunately, Doss’ World War II exploits translate poorly to film. “Hacksaw Ridge” is a straightforward retelling of a life that leaves little room to explore the themes that make his story worth sharing. Doss was a man of contradictions, torn between his pacifist duty as a Christian and his patriotic duty as an American. Instead of exploring this dynamic, Doss is portrayed as a simple country boy too naïve to understand how these responsibilities conflict. Too much of the script is squandered on inconsequential characters like Doss’ father, a shell-shocked WWI vet whose contribution to the film never amounts to more than an imitation of profundity.  

WW: To say that the script is squandered is an understatement. I couldn’t help cringing at painfully cliched romance dialogues between Desmond and Dorothy. When the two are hiking, Dorothy asks Doss for help getting up on a rock. “It’ll cost you,” Doss quips. “What?” Dorothy naïvely replies. Predictably, Doss says, “A kiss.” The dialogue at basic training and during battle scenes is equally schmaltzy: Vince Vaughn, who for some awful reason has been cast in an action role, compares the skinny Doss to a cornstalk and and calls a soldier who appears Native American “Chief.” It feels like a pale imitation of the comical drill sergeant scene in “Full Metal Jacket.” On the battlefield, Doss prays to save “just one more,” which he repeats to the point that it becomes funny rather than inspiring.

SM: Solid acting saves the script from being totally intolerable. Andrew Garfield, though an unexpected choice for the role, makes Doss’ awkward simplicity somewhat endearing. I actually thought that Vince Vaughn brought some humanity to the gruff Sergeant Howell.

WW: I think that Garfield did the best he could with a subpar script. Garfield’s sweetness and charm made Doss’ gentle personality come alive. However, I have to disagree with you on Vince Vaughn. It was hard to tell what kind of character he was trying to portray. One minute, he’s an over-the-top goofy drill sergeant, and the next he’s a grizzled and serious veteran. During basic training scenes, Vaughn enunciates his words oddly and doesn’t use contractions. For example, he’ll say, “I do not believe what you are doing, soldier,” and he hits each syllable like a sledgehammer. Luke Bracey, who plays Smitty, the company bully, also falls short in his performance. Bracey plays the tough guy well, but falls short when it comes to vulnerable moments. He’s reluctant to emote and seems oddly calm when telling traumatic stories of his youth as an orphan. When he admits to Doss, “I can be kind of an asshole,” when they share a foxhole, Bracey feels detached from his deep-seeded insecurities which the moment demands.

SM: One of my biggest issues with the movie was its half-baked pacifism. Despite featuring a hero who refuses to touch a gun, “Hacksaw Ridge” has enough cartoonish, purposeless gore for three Quentin Tarantino films. It is a testament to the film’s failure that I genuinely questioned whether the film was pro- or anti-war.

WW: Agreed. As far as WWII cinema goes, I feel like “Saving Private Ryan,” “Band of Brothers,” and “The Pacific” set a good example for modern war movies: realistic and gritty, but for the purpose of conveying how horrible war is. Hacksaw Ridge felt like a glorification of combat. Certainly, the film’s hero was a pacifist, but the combat was hokey and unrealistic, more like a Call of Duty trailer than anything else. For example, Smitty, a soldier in Doss’ company, uses a comrade’s torso as a shield as he runs and guns across the battlefield. There were flames and fireballs exploding across the screen constantly. In this way, the movie felt like a step backwards.“Hacksaw Ridge” portrays war as a necessary struggle in the name of nationalism, which caught my attention especially in light of the election. Seems like a movie Trump would love.

SM: “Hacksaw Ridge,” directed by winner Mel Gibson, is a tremendous film…big league BLOCKBUSTER!

WW: Get outta here, ya schmuck!

SM: But, in all seriousness, I disagree with the idea that “Hacksaw Ridge” is particularly partisan. I think this movie is something that mainstream Americans from both sides of the political spectrum can enjoy. Although conservatives may specifically emphasize Doss’ devoutness and liberals champion his pacifism, all Americans can still take pride in our country’s role in WWII, and for good reason. “Hacksaw Ridge,” where Americans of all stripes unite against a common enemy, is bound to resonate during a time when the country is so divided.

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