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HACKING AWAY AT ‘HACKSAW RIDGE’

A great story doesn’t always translate into a great movie, and that’s the disappointing case with Hacksaw Ridge. No one could invent a more impressive or inspiring tale than the true story of Desmond Doss, a backwoods Virginia boy and Seventh Day Adventist who took the commandment “Thou Shalt Not Kill” to heart. He refused to even handle a rifle, yet his patriotism impelled him to enlist in the Army during World War Two with the hope of becoming a medic. His goal was to save lives rather than take them.

Andrew Garfield fully captures the wide-eyed sincerity of Doss in his performance, no easy task in these days of cynicism and irony. Teresa Palmer is equally good as the small-town nurse he falls in love with.

But in the screenplay, credited to Robert Shenkkan (the playwright noted for The Kentucky Cycle and co-writer of The Pacific miniseries) and prolific Australian writer-producer Andrew Knight, Doss’ experiences during basic training seem shopworn and obvious. At least they are enlivened by Vince Vaughn’s potent performance as a drill sergeant.

It is only when we reach the battlefield and see Doss in action, summoning physical and spiritual strength to save dozens of lives without a thought of his own safety, that the film validates its purpose.

Yet here, too, there is a problem: director Mel Gibson thrives on violence. The film opens on horrifying and graphic scenes of war at its worst, in the chaos of battle with soldiers’ bodies on fire, being blown apart. No one would suggest that Gibson soft-pedal the reality of war in the post-Saving Private Ryan era, but these grisly, unrelenting images (with far too many shots of rats gnawing at rotting corpses) threaten to overwhelm the film’s real purpose: dramatizing one modest man’s moral convictions.

I won’t dwell on other, smaller problems like Sam Worthington’s nonexistent American accent. Those issues in this Aussie-made movie are balanced by the fine performances given by Rachel Griffiths and especially Hugo Weaving as Doss’ parents.

Hacksaw Ridge is a case of good intentions gone astray. I recently caught an old movie on TCM that succeeds in every way that this movie fails: Gary Cooper plays the leading role in Howard Hawks’ Sergeant York (1941), the story of a real-life rural boy not unlike Desmond Doss, but set in World War One. It may be sentimental, even corny at times, but it still works. Andrew Garfield manages to capture some of that Cooper sincerity; it’s too bad his collaborators behind the camera couldn’t follow his lead.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at leonardmaltin.com. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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