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The Deer Hunter

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All-Reviews.com Movie Review: The Deer Hunter

Starring: Robert De Niro, John Cazale
Director: Michael Cimino
Rated: R
RunTime: 183 Minutes
Release Date: December 1978
Genres: War, Drama, Classic




Review by Dragan Antulov
4 stars out of 4

First time I watched THE DEER HUNTER, more than a decade ago, I was slightly disappointed. It was a great film, but I found it to be below expectations heightened by the critical hype and word of mouth. However, in the meantime, some very unfortunate historical circumstances in my country forced me to appreciate this film on quite another, more personal level. And I found it to be more powerful, actually one of the most powerful films ever made.

In 1978, when it was made, THE DEER HUNTER was hailed as a true masterpiece, one of the best films ever made and probably the most important film of its time. Such reputation was acknowledged with four "Oscars". However, more than two decades later, THE DEER HUNTER is one of those masterpieces that are forgotten, ignored or underrated by those who make Top 100 lists. There are many reasons for that. First, its director, Michael Cimino, entered the history with his major flop HEAVEN'S GATE and the resulting image of loser, megalomaniac and bad filmmaker marred even the reputation of his true masterpiece. Second, treatment of Vietnamese in THE DEER HUNTER is hardly acceptable for those critics who judge films based on their political correctness. And, finally, at the end of millennium, USA, as the only remaining superpower and most powerful and self-confident nation of the world, doesn't like to be reminded of Vietnam War, the most embarrassing episode in recent national history.

The plot of the film is based on the screenplay by Cimino and Derek Washburn. It begins some time in early 1970s in Clayrton, small industrial town in Western Pennsylvania, populated mostly by descendants of Russian immigrants. We follow group of young steelworkers that spend all their free time drinking, playing pool and hunting deer in nearby mountains. One of them, Stephen (played by John Savage) is about to marry pregnant Angela (played by Rutanya Alda). On the wedding, his best man Michael (played by Robert de Niro) finds mutual attraction to best lady Linda (played by Meryl Streep), but refuses to pursue it out of loyalty to her boyfriend and his best friend Nicholas (played by Christopher Walken). Next day friends go to the hunting trip, the last before Michael, Stephen and Nicholas get enlisted to fight in Vietnam War. Their friendship would be ultimately tested in Vietnam, where they witness unimaginable horrors and atrocities and finally get captured themselves. Led by Michael, they escape from Viet Cong prison, but when they reach safety, they are only shadows of their former selves. Stephen has lost his legs, Nicholas has lost his mental health and disappeared in the streets of Saigon and Michael, upon returning to his hometown, finds that he too has problems connecting to people.

One of the most interesting things about THE DEER HUNTER is the very neat and disciplined structure of the film. Number three, that is very important in Christian, especially Orthodox Christian, tradition, plays important role in this film. THE DEER HUNTER has three major protagonists, lasts for three hours and is composed of three different acts. Cimino as director likes to stage elaborate scenes with long, expository shots (hard to imagine in MTV-style school of directing today), with meticulous care about details. First act depicts everyday life of our heroes as simple, normal human beings and portrays them as people we might find next door. We see them working, having fun and trying to solve their petty every day problems. First act, especially the scenes that deal with the wedding, were often criticised for being overlong and unnecessary. Nothing could be farther from truth - Cimino had to make first act that long in order to make viewers as familiar with characters as possible. When we switch to second and third act, and we see how those characters and people around them are permanently changed, the emotional impact is much stronger.

Uneventful, simple and boring existence in the gloomy industrial heartland of America suddenly becomes idyllic when Cimino shocks us by throwing our heroes right in the middle of Vietnam inferno. Scenes of violence and unimaginable atrocities were shocking and disgusting for the audience of its time, but for today's audience they might seem tame, thanks to many imitators and film makers who pushed the envelope even further. These scenes, although still not suitable for the squeamish viewers, are also necessary, because we must understand what really happened to our heroes. And than comes the third act, when our heroes must return home, wrecked beyond any repair. Michael, who was best prepared for the ordeal due to his hunting skills, personal philosophy of "one shot - one kill" and charisma of natural leader, looks unaffected on the surface and actually tries to bring back some normalcy to the lives of his comrades and community. But even he is personally affected, and things are just not going to be the same - even the most innocent hunting in the woods brings too many painful memories. And even his old neighbourhood isn't the same anymore, being indirectly affected with traumatic war.

>From the day of premiere Cimino had some problems with critics, especially those from the left wing of political spectrum. THE DEER HUNTER, unlike most other films that dealt with Vietnam in those times, portrays Vietnam War from rather unusual perspective. Film ignores generational conflicts and social turmoil of 1960s, as well as internal American politics and endless debates caused by the war. By giving his young protagonists blue-collar immigrant background, Cimino portrays them as people who don't care about rights and wrongs of the Vietnam adventure; they go to war because they feel obliged to the country that gave new opportunities to their impoverished ancestors. Instead of generational conflicts, those people have problems with their identity - they are very Russian and very American in the same time. This background enabled Cimino to surprise the audience with somewhat unusual twists on all Vietnam cliches of 1970s. First we see community that actively supports the war (even in closing years, when the majority of the country saw the utter pointlessness of the endeavour) and greets veterans as true heroes (quite differently from college students that used to heckle incoming veterans as "baby killers"). Then, we not only see something very rare in Hollywood cinema - spectacular Orthodox Christian ceremonies - but also we see Russians, in 1970s perceived to be the greatest enemies of American way of life, as more American than average Americans themselves.

Uniqueness of Cimino's perspective becomes problematic when film focuses on Vietnam itself. Cimino takes very one-sided approach, which later brought him accusations of racism (Cimino would later try to silence those critics with almost Marxist view of late 19th Century USA in HEAVEN'S GATE and more balanced approach towards Chinese Americans in THE YEAR OF DRAGON) . The only atrocities portrayed in this film are those committed by NVA and Viet Cong, but even the friendly South Vietnamese are actually shown to be unworthy of noble American protection, since they misuse it only to deprive young Americans of money in most rotten ways possible. Saigon is shown as decadent moral cesspool that rightly deserved to be cleansed by victorious Communists at the end of the film. Cimino enhanced that reputation by being deliberately inaccurate in some details. Russian Roulette scenes are the most notorious example. Scene in Viet Cong prison is one of the most powerful in the history of cinema, but it lacks credibility in the context of realities of Viet Cong's guerrilla warfare. Same is with the whole underground Russian Roulette playhouses in Saigon, subplot that gives this film the only major plot and characterisation flaw.

However, even that flaw is dwarfed by the enormous talent invested in this film. The acting is probably best known - THE DEER HUNTER had one of the strongest and most memorable casts in history of cinema. Robert de Niro as the nominal lead is at his best, portraying the Michael as simple hero, unofficial leader of the group, quiet, reliable man, yet affected with the atrocities and able to show strong emotions in traumatic experiences. He is partnered with really great actors that give touching portrayals of his best, yet physically or mentally inferior friends. John Savage is great as Stephen, one of the most tragic characters in modern cinema, as well as "Oscar"- awarded Christopher Walken who gives excellent Nicholas and his slow slide into madness. Other acting talents were great. John Cazale's role of false macho friend Stan is especially moving when we take into account that the actor was actually dying from terminal cancer in front of cameras. Meryl Streep, one of my favourite actresses, is also grand in one of her earlier roles; her "girl next door" charm is nicely contrasted with the inner traumas, indirectly caused by war and conflicting feelings towards boyfriend and his best pal. One of the underrated performances also came from George Dzundza as bartender John, the one who has the warmest personality on the outside, yet suffers from guilty conscience on the inside.

Great acting was also enhanced with great atmosphere. Always reliable director of photography Vilmos Zsigmond used mostly grey tones, but they are effective in all scenes - whether they feature industrial settings of Pennsylvania, natural paradise of Allegheny Mountains, devastated Vietnam countryside or infernal underworld of Saigon. Simple musical score by Stanley Myers is also great, providing romantic, sentimental tone so much in contrast with harsh, naturalistic events of the film. Every time I think of romance, I always remember that theme.

Finally, the ultimate reason why people should watch THE DEER HUNTER lies in its universal importance. I witnessed war and saw how it could change people and communities, sometimes irreparably. Names, locations, causes and belligerents might be different, but the aftermath is always the same - no matter how prepared they might be, people are always deeply affected with violence and destruction. I saw too many Michaels, Stephens and Nicholases first hand and witnessed how psychological wounds, both on them personally and on the society as a whole, could have devastating effects. THE DEER HUNTER, in its sincerity, dwarves almost any other film that deals with the ugly reality of war; compared with it SAVING PRIVATE RYAN looks like simple militaristic propaganda. Today's world, in which many wars are fought for the sake of daytime politics and winning elections, needs more films like THE DEER HUNTER.

Copyright 1999 Dragan Antulov

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