The Deer Hunter (Review)

6/10
Dir. Michael Cimino*
Starring: Robert DeNiro, Christopher Walken*; John Cazale, Michael Savage, Meryl Streep, etc.
1978*
182 minutes

* Academy Award Winner; also won for best sound and film-editing

Should You See This Film?
For a film that wins this many awards and notoriety, I would want to know if it is all that it is cracked up to be. The short answer, imo, is no. Walken is OK in this, but had I not known that he won an award, I would not have thought his performance was noteworthy; ditto Meryl Streep and Robert De Niro, both of whom earned nominations. Perhaps, I’ve already seen superior work from these actors, so I didn’t think their performances were extraordinary.

That doesn’t mean I think it is a bad film.
Even at three hours the film did a decent job of keeping my attention. There are some noteworthy aspects of the film, which I go into later. The film also leans more towards “entertainment” than politics, so if you’re not interested in Vietnam politics, you shouldn’t necessarily avoid the film.

The film is basically about a group of friends, three of which sign up to fight in Vietnam, from a working class steel town in Pennsylvania. If you’re in the mood for a epic drama (with some intense scenes), this might be for you.

Personal Comments
For me the way the movie seems to place the story of the classic Hollywood war hero–a la a John Wayne in The Green Berets or Gary Cooper in Sergeant York–and a Vietnam war movie like Born on the Fourth of July is the most interesting aspects of the film, at least from the standpoint of talking about the film. It is also what makes the film awkward and not very successsful, imo.

Audiences want to root for and admire the war hero without any ambiguity. The political and cultural baggage of the war gets in the way, especially since Cimino does seem to want to criticize the war: The three friends enthusiastically sign up to join the war, just like Ron Kovic (the Tom Cruise character) in Born on the Fourth of July. Like Kovic, one of the friends, Steven (John Savage), loses the ability to walk. Nic (Walken) goes crazy and eventually kills himself. And after his funeral, the remaining friends sit around a table and sing, “God Bless America.” In the production notes, Cimino supposedly said the film was not about Vietnam, but about the way stress from battle affects people. The film could have taken place during WWII, for example.

While this is going on, Cimino wants to portray De Niro as a classic type of hero. He establishes, especially when De Niro hunts deer. We see very heroic shots of him standing on the mountain with his reflection in a mirror like pool. There is also a noble side to him, too. We see this in his attraction to Linda (Meryl Streep), and his approach towards women in general. He’s ultimately very loyal to his friends, and will risk his own life to save them. But the backdrop of Vietnam takes the enjoyment out of this.

Cimino selecting DeNiro as the classic hero and Walken as his best friend threw me off, too. Like the Vietnam War, these two actors bring a baggage with them: I see these actors, and I’m anticipating psychotic behavior from them. This wasn’t a big distraction, but they made caring about and connecting with the characters difficult. If he had cast different actors like Robert Redford and Jon Voight (probably too old for the parts), the film may have had a totally different flavor.

If Cimino wanted to make a film about a classic hero, he should not have ended the film this way. Let me suggest a more consistent ending with the rest of the film: After Nick’s funeral, we see Michael and Linda talking to each other. We know they love each other, but because Nick loved Linda, Michael knows he can never be with her. Linda realizes this, and we see Michael leave. Cimino could even show Michael going up to hunt deer. Perhaps, Cimino thought the combination was interesting, but the actual result of placing this classic Hollywood hero in the Vietnam War does not work very well, imo.

Let me close with mentioning some things that stood out for me. First, I liked the transition from the first act to the second act: the friends come back to the bar after the hunting trip, laughing and joking around; John (George Dzundza) starts playing this classical piece on the piano, and everyone gets quiet and becomes transfixed; finally, there’s an abrupt cut of a helicopter landing in some Vietnam field. Second, the prison escape scene is definitely a 10 ten most intense scene of all-time.

These moments and the skill involved in putting the whole picture together are very good. But the awkward juxtaposition of two types of films prevents me from giving it a higher score (hence the “6”).

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