TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Mel Gibson has directed a new movie called "Hacksaw Ridge." He won an Oscar for the second feature he directed, the 1995 Scottish war epic "Braveheart." And he went on to make two more brutal films, "The Passion Of The Christ" and "Apocalypto." "Hacksaw Ridge" is also graphically violent, set on the battlefield during World War II. But the hero, played by Andrew Garfield, is a pacifist. Film critic David Edelstein has a review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: In "Hacksaw Ridge," Mel Gibson has found a great subject for his peculiar gifts, a story of extreme religious faith amid extreme violence. It's based on the life of Desmond Doss, the first conscientious objector to receive the U.S. Medal of Honor for lives he saved as a medic during the May 1945 battle for Okinawa. Unusual for a CO, Doss had no problem serving. He longed to serve.
The problem was that as a Seventh Day Adventist, he refused to carry a weapon, which the Army saw as flouting a central tenet of military cohesion. You protect your fellow soldiers. Doss had to put himself in the middle of an inferno to prove he wasn't a coward. He just wanted to save lives instead of taking them.
As Doss, Andrew Garfield has such a sweet affect that at times he reminded me of Jim Nabors' Gomer Pyle. But the one note he hits is the right one for the film. He makes you believe that Doss has purged violence from his makeup. As a child, Doss nearly killed his brother with a rock and stood in shame before his deeply religious mother, played by Rachel Griffiths.
He struggled to be as different as possible from his brutal alcoholic father, played by Hugo Weaving, a man who lost his closest friends in World War I and rides with survivor's guilt. In the barracks, Doss takes a lot of abuse, first from his sergeant, a beautifully nuanced performance by Vince Vaughn, and other soldiers, among them a muscular bully played by Luke Bracey.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HACKSAW RIDGE")
LUKE BRACEY: (As Smitty) So how come you don't fight? You think you're better than us?
ANDREW GARFIELD: (As Desmond Doss) No.
BRACEY: (As Smitty) Well, what if you was attacked?
(SOMEONE BEING HIT)
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Whoa.
BRACEY: (As Smitty) See? Like that. Bible says to turn the other cheek, though. See, I don't think this is a question of religion, fellas. I think this is cowardice, plain and simple. That right, Doss? Go on, take a poke. Tell you what, I'm going to give you a free shot, right there. Hit me, Doss, go on.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Let him have it.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Go ahead.
BRACEY: (As Smitty) No?
EDELSTEIN: Garfield's Doss just stands there, his eyes watery but his resolve firm. He won't hit back. At first, I was surprised that Mel Gibson was attracted to the story of Desmond Doss. Gibson loves violence. Well, love may be too simple. It's that he seems to see violence as the straightest path to spiritual purity.
I once wrote that the formula for the action films in which he starred was the three M's - make Mel mad - hurt him, hurt his women, hurt his kids and watch him explode as a holy avenger. But the masochistic component might be stronger yet.
In Gibson's "Braveheart," Scottish rebel William Wallace reaches his apotheosis while being drawn and quartered. Christ in "The Passion Of The Christ" earns his divinity by having his flesh scourged beyond the point of human endurance. On screen and off, in his horrifying public struggles with alcoholism, Gibson is drawn to scenarios of self-obliteration, to men whose wails of pain to their God are proof they've transcended the flesh.
Unlike his hero in "Hacksaw Ridge," Gibson doesn't suggest the men who do kill on the battlefield are wrong. They're heroes. They saved Doss's life. For much of the battle on Okinawa, Doss is on the periphery. As a medic, he's like a little boy trying to plug a thousand holes in a dike. This part of the film, the last third, is relentless, as graphic as "Saving Private Ryan" with body parts and viscera everywhere. But the carnage is shot from farther back so that we see more vividly the relationship of the soldiers to one another and to the enemy that pours out of the smoke.
It's only later when what's left of Doss's battalion has descended the ridge that we see the true scale of his heroism. He lowers gravely wounded men, one by one, down a cliff. Then, as Japanese soldiers prowl the battlefield shooting anyone that moves, he begs his God to let him save another soldier, just one more, he says.
When Doss is himself lowered down the ridge, Gibson milks the religious angle. He films his hero from below, an angel, suspended between heaven and earth. But Gibson has earned that imagery.
I don't think he has the moral intelligence of the greatest artists. He doesn't mourn human cruelty. He seems to crave it. But he puts his fever and his passion into every frame. Like it or not, he's a remarkable filmmaker.
GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like yesterday's interview with Stephen Colbert, check out our podcast. There's lots of our interviews you can download.
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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman and Mooj Zadie. Therese Madden directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.