Mel Gibson and his cast and crew, deliver what I want in a movie in this amazing true story of a conscientious objector who shows more courage than seems humanly possible. That World War Two is still ripe with stories to tell, more than seventy years after it ended should not be a surprise. Sixteen million Americans had a part to play in the conflict at one point or another, so there have got to be many stories still to tell. Medal of Honor winner Desmond Doss certainly deserves to have his story told and boy what a story it is. War is the ultimate location for violent conflict to be depicted, and there is certainly no shortage of violence here. Before the crux of the story appears however, we have the background to get through and a love story to tell.
Andrew Garfield has been a successful young actor in prestige pictures like “The Social Network” and in popcorn films like the rebooted “Spiderman” series. Based on the results so far, he should stick to the dramas and skip comic book films for a while. His earnest face and sweet voice seem made for a film like this. He portrays a kid who comes from a hardscrabble family background but one who is steeped in religious beliefs. After some strong experiences with violence himself, he moves to a true pacifist belief system, rooted in his Seventh Day Adventist dogma. Desmond Doss comes across as a naive but incredibly sincere waif who is confronting the greatest upheaval in violence in human history, with little more than a smile and an aw shucks attitude. That this film and the story it depicts don’t get laughed at is a credit to the script and the actor who plays the part. Gibson does not over do the religious themes but he does give Doss the chance to express how deeply his faith motivates him, well before he becomes battle tested. That is why his accomplishment is all the more credible to us (in spite of the fact that is is based in reality). There is only one moment of histrionics when Doss punches a wall in frustration. The rest of his determined approach is shown through his willingness to fight on without using violence. to be able to make what he sees as a moral contribution to the war on his side.
Earlier this year, Teresa Palmer was not that memorable in “Lights Out” , she is much more believable as a 1940s nurse who catches the eye of our hero than she was as the tattooed rebel in the ghost story. She and Garfield form a strong emotional backbone that helps justify our interest in his character and how he manages to cope in the face of overwhelming violence. I imagine there were a great many men who fought in the war who manged to get through the traumas they saw by keeping the hope of love alive in their hearts. Although Doss had a contentious relationship with his father, there is also a family at home that wants him to be safe as well. The personal sacrifice that his mentally scarred father makes to allow Desmond to serve was one of the noble elements of the film. I don’t know how accurate it was but I can say how effective it was in the movie. Hugo Weaving gets a chance to play a flawed man who is driven by his tragic experiences in the Great War. It is not a large character part in the film but it may be the most real person Weaving has ever played in a movie and he was wonderful. There is a line of dialogue that he speaks which will cause a shudder of fear and pride at the same moment.
Flavor of the month eight years ago, Sam Worthington, finally shows that he is an actor as well as a face. Every moment he was on screen reminded me of character actor Ed Lauter, and that is a good thing my friends. Vince Vaughn is maybe a little harder to accept because of roles he has played in the past, but I was able to see past the face and recognize a solid performance in a part that is still a great deal of cliche. All of the other actors seem credible and the usual diversity of characters shows up on the screen, but it never feels like it is a stereotypical WWII film. Gibson has directed bloody action/battle sequences before. There are many shots here that will match “Saving Private Ryan” for brutal honesty and cinematic shock. Anyone tempted to think that they go on for too long should remember that the real events went days and offered no opportunity for a soft drink or a bathroom break. The battle of Okinawa as shown here was hard fought and vicious. That the result helped end the war and Americans managed to return home and lead decent lives is also miraculous.
Frankly, I have said it before on numerous occasions in these posts, I am a sentimentalist who wants to be moved by the stories I see in the theater. This story and the film makers moved me in the way I think a film should. They tell an ennobling story with craftsmanship and passion. The actors convince me that I am glimpsing something proximate to the events being depicted. I leave the theater buoyed by the fact that in the world, there are people who have stories like this and there are film makers who can tell these kind of stories. When this film is the subject of awards speculation in a future post, maybe I will spend more time talking about technique. Right now I am simply grateful once again to the greatest generation and satisfied that the talent behind this film have done them credit.