Movie Review: The Deer Hunter
"One shot is what it's all about. A deer has to be taken with one shot."
The Deer Hunter (1978) is an epic war drama film revolving around a trio of steelworkers from a small, working-class town whose lives are forever changed upon witnessing the hell that was Vietnam. The strong points of the film are the outstanding performances of nearly every actor in the movie, including Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, John Savage, John Cazale, Meryl Streep, and George Dzundza. Yes, there are technical deficiencies in the sound, but it hardly matters. This is petty nitpicking compared to the overall construction of the film. A film that won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actor for Christopher Walken. It also marked Meryl Streep's very first Academy Award nomination. The American Film Institute ranked it the 53rd greatest American film of all time. The script is beautifully written and the movie is filmed perfectly. I can find nothing wrong with this movie.
The Vietnam sequences take place midway through the movie, serving as a bridge between the beginning and the end, both of which explore the lives of the men, not the war around them. Michael, Nicky and Steven (John Savage) are young Pennsylvanian miners volunteering to fight in the Vietnam war. Steven has just gotten married to the love of his life but has little time to celebrate as he is shipped overseas with his friends. They eventually all find themselves taken hostage in a Vietnamese POW camp where their sadistic captors force them to play Russian Roulette for their own entertainment. The rules of the game? Put a single bullet in a random chamber of a handgun, spin it, snap it, raise it to your head, squeeze the trigger, and repeat these steps until there's only one man left standing.
There's a particularly infamous scene in The Deer Hunter, when Michael (Robert De Niro), a Vietnam veteran, tracks down his friend, Nicky (Christopher Walken), who never arrived home after the war. He is eventually found playing Russian Roulette for money in Saigon, his mind an utter mess. He is unable to fully remember Michael and refuses to return home. What proceeds in the following sequence is a haunting example of gut-wrenching film-making.
No, this is not the best film about the Vietnam War; it's hardly about Vietnam at all. The minority of vets who don't like it have it wrong, as do the Vietnamese who found it racist. The film could feature any war, and portray any combatants. Causing mass controversy upon its release due to alleged "racist" content regarding the Vietnamese, a crowd of Vietnam veterans gathered around outside the Oscars ceremony, claiming that the film was "not accurate.” Though, as many film historians, authors and critics have already pointed out, the film is not meant to be a 100% accurate depiction of the events in Vietnam. Instead, it is a focus on the aftermath of war, and how damaging it can be. It is a character study, and accusations of racism, although perhaps justified to some extent, are hardly convincing as the film itself is not concerned with bashing the participants of the war as it is war itself.
The (primary) victims here are recognizable American archetypes, and because of this, proud Americans will be struck by The Deer Hunter harder than any other war film I can possibly think of. This is one of the very few post-war Hollywood films that shows a sincere reverence for the lives of small-town Americans, and unfortunately, we are running out of those.
Of course, many of the scenes in the first hour don't advance the narrative. However, they are not meant to; this is where the nature of each character is examined for the audience. To launch directly into the war sequences would be sloppy, and we would have a harder time caring for the characters. Scenes of weddings, hunting, and sharing a beer with friends revolve around frivolity, subtly reminding the viewer of the careless and frat-boy-like immaturity of the young men. The characters we became close to then get thrown into a life of war and devastation, witnessing the events that changed them and the future of our country. The end is a somber reflection upon the past, which creates an exceptionally stark contrast between the devastated characters of the three who went to war and the relatively unaffected personalities of those who stayed behind. The Deer Hunter takes a bigger step back from depicting the transformation of a soldier, but rather the transformation of a civilian. In the war’s aftermath, a network of friends is no longer the same carefree and silly bunch. The Deer Hunter is an exceptionally powerful film highlighting how war affects every citizen of America, not just the soldiers fighting for them.
Despite the negativity surrounding The Deer Hunter, it is still one of the finest works of American cinema, a poignant, and ultimately depressing film that asks us if the effects of war extend past the physical and into the realm of human mentality. A unique classic, it is not surprising that director, Michael Cimino didn't have another movie in him after something this wrenching. I mean, it did win 5 Oscars in 1978 including Best Picture and Best Director for Cimino!