Pacifism is a tough subject to make a film about as there is a high risk of sounding preachy and judgemental. When you add religion to the mix that risk gets even higher so this was a delicate subject to put on film in a way that would engage people. Many would argue that Mel Gibson doesn’t have the delicate touch necessary to approach issues of tolerance in films and there’s a lot of truth to that statement especially when considering this particular film.
Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) was the first man in history to receive a Medal of Honour without firing a single shot and he did so by acting as a medic during the above mentioned battle with the Japanese. Basically he didn’t see his beliefs as a barrier to him serving his country and proved that by doing everything he could to protect those around him.
It’s a really inspiring story and Gibson does a great job of telling it. At 2 hours 19 minutes it isn’t a short film but it doesn’t feel as long as it is. When it was over I actually felt that I could stand to watch a little more and that almost never happens to me with films. It’s a testament to how well paced this is that I was constantly captivated from start to finish.
The film is really well structured and divides neatly into two halves. The first half is everything prior to the shooting starting where we are introduced to Desmond as a child, see him grow up and fall in love with Dorothy (Teresa Palmer) before deciding to enlist and go through his basic training. The second half is a brutally blood soaked war epic that truly shows how horrible it is to be on a battlefield.
I found the first half to be engaging enough because Andrew Garfield does a really good job playing Desmond. He’s really charming and gives a lot of information through facial expressions along with some very carefully chosen dialogue. There are hints of an inner violent nature that he’s constantly fighting against but the film doesn’t make a lot of which which is a shame as it would have been a good running subplot. As it sits it’s fine as part of his motivation but there was definitely more to be done there.
The setup does have some significant problems though. It seems strange to call something pointless in a true life adaptation because this is someone’s life and the events are in the film because they possibly really happened but the love story with Dorothy adds nothing to the overall story other than giving him someone to pine over when he’s on the battlefield. She only appears in a handful of scenes and disappears never to return once the first half of the film ends.
Aspects of it feel very clunky as well. There are a lot of scenes that only really exist to give Desmond a life lesson that will help inform his motivation in the coming scenes. Of course these revelatory moments are important but they could be a lot more natural than they come across. Sharper dialogue would definitely have helped with that.
Despite this I would struggle to say I wasn’t engaged by any of it. The film did enough for me to invest in Desmond and understand his beliefs as they relate to those around him. His reason for enlisting was clear and his desire to help others in a time of conflict came through strongly.
There is a long stretch of the film where Desmond’s resolve is tested by the military who all give him a really hard time just because he stands up for what he believes in. Impressively the film doesn’t shy away from the fact that everyone who fights is fighting for the right to have that freedom of choice. There is a clash of opinions on what counts as necessary in a War and the film never reaches a position on it which is good as it allows the audience to see the issue for what it is. Nothing is simplified and the characters are simply allowed to go on believing what they believe. Attitudes towards the people change but the core beliefs never do.
The second half as I’ve mentioned is an absolute bloodbath. I’m not a fan of excessive violence and this is really far beyond what I would consider to be excessive. In some ways it’s really gratuitous but it isn’t painted in a positive or entertaining light. It’s supposed to be horrifying and definitely is which makes it really effective in context. While all of this carnage is happening around him Desmond is the only one who is entirely focused on saving lives. It’s an effective contrast as both War and Peace are represented in these scenes. Desmond represents Peace while all of the soldiers fight the War around him.
These sequences definitely look great. The action is visceral and easy to follow with no apologies made for the horrors inflicted on those involved. The battlefield is muddy and unforgiving looking with obvious danger everywhere. It’s easy to be invested in the people since we have spent so much time with the characters up until that point so it feels like an effective payoff for all of the time spent setting up those involved.
Other characters in the film only really exist to support Desmond’s story which makes sense since it is his story. I’ve never been a huge fan of Vince Vaughn but I was pleasantly surprised at him taking on the role of an army drill instructor complete with the loud voice and casual insults. He’s surprisingly believable in this part and has lots of entertaining exchanges. Sam Worthington and Luke Bracey are also put to good use as soldiers who have opinions of Desmond that change over the course of the film. Hugo Weaving’s role as Desmond’s violent PTSD suffering father is an important one in shaping Desmond as a person and Weaving can definitely be counted on to be terrifying when he needs to be.
An excellent film that makes its point very clearly and leaves it up to the viewer to decide what side of the issue presented they fall on. Desmond’s motivation is strongly established as are the beliefs of those around him so it is all represented. Andrew Garfield delivers an excellent performance as do the rest of the cast with Vince Vaughn, Sam Worthington and Luke Bracey delivering surprisingly strong performances. The story is reasonably well told although there is a lot of clutter in the first half and the violence in the second half could sometimes be described as gratuitous. I found it to be very effective in showing the contrast between War and Peace represented through the characters. It’s a really inspiring story that is incredibly well told.
- Andrew Garfield’s excellent performance
- a neatly structured film
- strong coverage given to the views of the characters with no clear “right answer”
- the effective use of violence to highlight the horrors of War
- an inspiring story well told
- some clunky elements to the setup
- a love story that goes nowhere then disappears
- overly brutal violence in places