Starring: Andrew Garfield, Teresa Palmer and Vince Vaughn
Directed by: Mel Gibson
Running time: 2 hrs 11 mins
Our Score: 5 out of 5 Stars
In the summer of 1979 I joined the U.S. Army and took Basic Training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. I’d like to think we were tough then…running in the Carolina heat – we were the last training cycle to have to run in boots – running the obstacle course and complaining loudly that, when we got the chance to see a movie on post, we got stuck with “Beyond the Poseidon Adventure!” I mention this because, 37 years before I arrived, another young man took Basic at Fort Jackson. His name was Desmond Doss.
We meet young Desmond (Darcy Bryce) and his brother, Hal (Roman Guerriero) as they run through the beautiful countryside of their Virginia home. Like most boys do, they begin to rough-house, which quickly turns to punches. Egged on by their father, the boys begin to throw haymakers. Sensing he’s going to lose, Desmond picks up a brick and lands it against the side of Hal’s head. We have a winner. Of course this does not sit well with his parents, who warn the young boy that he could have easily killed his brother. Religion is important in the Doss household and the commandments are stressed. To break the one that reads, “Thou shall not kill,” according to Desmond’s mother (Rachel Griffiths), is the worse sin of all. Which seems like an easy rule to remember until Pearl Harbor, when the passive Desmond joins the Army. In doing so he learns he’ll have to fight to the bitter end for his beliefs and his life…against his fellow soldiers.
Based on the life of the only Conscientious Objector – these are people that refuse military service on the grounds of personal or religious beliefs – to win the Medal of Honor during WWII, the film relies on strong performances and brilliant storytelling to tell the story without being heavy-handed. Wanting to serve his country, Desmond (Garfield) joins the Army, having been assured that his CO status will not hinder his basic training experience. Sadly, that is not the case. His fellow soldiers, his drill instructor (an amazing Vaughn) and his unit commander are not pleased with his decision. In their eyes, a soldier who won’t pick up a weapon is a coward…someone they certainly can’t count on in battle. As he is given terrible tasks to perform, as well as almost nightly beatings, Doss continues to push on. He scarcely avoids a courts martial and, after much debate, is allowed to travel to Okinawa with his fellow soldiers. It is there that he shows all that will listen what a true hero is.
The cast, led by Garfield, proves to be up to the task of taking the audience into the middle of a war. All of the young men are able to get across the message of helplessness of having to keep your wits about you when everyone else is unable to do so. Garfield does a fine job, as does Ms. Palmer, who plays Desmond’s soon to be wife, Dorothy. But it is Vince Vaughn, as the company NCO in charge that delivers the most powerful performance. Gone is the snarky smart guy, replaced by a character that is perfectly fleshed out. Think of him as a cross between R. Lee Ermey in “Full Metal Jackson” and Tom Sizemore in “Saving Private Ryan.”
Like the latter Spielberg film, the depiction of war is, indeed, hell. Gibson pulls no punches as he moves his camera among the casualties, filling our eyes with missing limbs and our ears with screams. Gibson has always had a great eye behind the camera and this film only adds to that reputation.
“In peacetime, sons bury fathers,” one man notes in the film, noting that “in times of war, fathers bury their sons.” Such is the price of war. I thank God every day that in my six years in the Army I never had to pick up a weapon in anger. I didn’t have to make that choice. Desmond Doss did. And his choices made him a hero.