Thursday, 16 March 2017

"With the world so set on tearing itself apart, it don't seem like such a bad thing to me to want to put a little bit of it back together."

In May 1945, in the hellfire battle of Okinawa, army medic and devout Seventh-day Adventist Desmond T. Doss battled to save the life of 75 men without firing a single bullet. And while he does actually take up arms in the heat of battle, he instead uses a rifle and blanket to improvise a sleigh to pull a stricken soldier to safety as the injured comrade opens fire on the advancing enemy. It is a rare moment of action movie fun in Mel Gibson's (Braveheart) film as we are plunged terrifyingly into the Pacific war.

At the heart of this cinematic cyclone is a more conventional character study of Andrew Garfield's (The Amazing Spider-Man) pacifist hero Doss. Torn by his need to serve in the fight against Japan and a strict moral code that prevents him from taking life, he signs up as a medic, hoping to do his duty by saving lives instead of taking them.

Using a Full Metal Jacket (1987) style structure, the film follows first Doss' basic training, then his time in combat. He meets and falls for local nurse Dorothy (Teresa Palmer) in a romantic subplot that is just the right side of saccharine, before heading to boot camp where he endures beatings, bullying and abuse from officers and men alike, with Vince Vaughn stealing scenes as an aggressive, motormouth drill instructor. The men, following his lead, soon make Doss' life a daily hell. The medic in training, though, won't crack.

As Doss is court-martialled for his conscientious objections, the judgement sets up act three's inferno – "You are free to run into the hellfire of battle without a single weapon to defend yourself," he is warned.

The combat sequences, set on a blasted, blood soaked Okinawan ridge and recreated in micro detail in Australia, are filmed as an expression of pure violence. Between the mud, splayed bodies, bullet pierced tin hats and torsos used as shields, the Battle of Okinawa pulverises. War has been hell in movies before – this is worse. Like the opening salvos of Saving Private Ryan (1998), only at altitude, the thick fug of smoke, cordite and blood leaves you gasping for air. In this maelstrom, Doss' acts of raw courage provide a much needed focal point. As the battle for command of the island swings one way and then the other, he saves first one, then another and finally dozens. The complexities of his moral stance fall away, replaced by the simple maths of saving lives. "Please, Lord, help me get one more," he begs, dodging death to drag the wounded from battle, dress injuries and winch them down a 400ft cliff with a makeshift pulley, staggering like a man drunk on righteous determination.

It is a moving recreation of a khaki clad superhero at work, an old fashioned story that Gibson mainlines with bleeding edge craft and technique – he has lost little of his skill for spectacle. But as with some of his previous work, the hero is occasionally depicted as an almost Christ-like figure, leaving it to Garfield's humble hero to keep the man grounded and relatable.

Biblical themes resonate too as a young Doss whacks his brother with a rock – his bullying dad (Hugo Weaving) whips him with a belt for his crime. Years on, Doss uses his own belt to help an injured man, his journey to redemption symbolically begun.

The former Spider-Man deftly imbues the open-hearted Doss with steel and dignity (and nailing the accent), is the warm anchor the film needs. Between this and Silence, two contrasting tales of faith in an unforgiving world, any memories of the sad end to his webslinging days should be well and truly banished.

A godsend as Gibson's peaceable pilgrim, Garfield imbues Doss' gangly mannerisms and corn-fed dialogue with a winning mix of simple sweetness and self certainty.

Occasionally clichéd on the homefront but cataclysmic in combat, this is certainly a worthy addition to the WWII canon. Gibson returns to film's frontline with a ferociously felt anti-war movie, while Garfield underpins it all with skill, showing that sometimes, war can be humanising too.

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