by Miguel E. Rodriguez
THE DEER HUNTER (1978)
Director: Michael Cimino
Cast: Robert De Niro, John Cazale, John Savage, Christopher Walken, Meryl Streep
My Rating: 10/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 86% Certified Fresh
PLOT: An in-depth examination of the ways in which the Vietnam War impacts and disrupts the lives of several friends in a small steel mill town in Pennsylvania
[Author’s note: This will be the first in an ongoing series of reviews inspired by a book given to me as a birthday present by my long-suffering girlfriend. Entitled Everyone’s a Critic, it challenges readers to watch a movie a week within a given category, then answer questions like, “Why did you choose this particular film” or “Do you feel this film deserved the award? Why or why not?” Clearly designed to inspire discussion. This category was “A Film That Has Won Best Picture.” This format is a work in progress, so I hope you’ll bear with me on future installments.
I am going to assume, for the most part, that most readers will have seen the movies being reviewed in this series. Therefore, some spoilers may or will follow. You have been warned.]
Once about every couple of years, I like to pick up and read Stephen King’s The Stand in its original uncut version. My paperback copy runs to 1,141 pages, not including King’s foreword and a brief prologue. Even Tolstoy would look at that thing and go, “Dude…edit yourself.” But having read it numerous times now, I cannot imagine what could possibly have been excised from the edited version of King’s novel. Every detail of that apocalyptic saga feels necessary. Reading it is like falling into a fully realized alternate universe.
That’s what watching The Deer Hunter is like. I can still remember the first time I watched it. I knew its reputation as one of the greatest Vietnam War movies ever made, had heard of its harrowing Russian Roulette scene, and was intensely curious. I popped it into the VCR, hit play…and for the first 70 minutes I got a slice-of-life drama about steel workers in a tiny Pittsburgh town (Clairton, for the detail-oriented) where, mere days before three friends ship off to Vietnam, one of them is getting married. And the centerpiece is the wedding reception. Ever watch a video of a wedding reception? How high do you think a young teenager would rate its entertainment value on a scale of 1 to 10?
I could not appreciate, as I do now, how vital this scene is. Relationships are stated, expanded upon, and brought to a kind of cliffhanger. Take the mostly non-verbal interplay between Linda (a luminous young Meryl Streep) and Michael (Robert De Niro). Linda is clearly in a relationship with Nick (Christopher Walken), but it is painfully obvious that Michael and Linda have eyes for each other. Mike watches intently from the bar as Linda dances at the reception, and whenever their eyes meet you can almost hear their hearts stop beating. The oblivious Nick even pairs them on the dance floor while he visits the bar himself. The awkwardness as Michael forces small talk and Linda shyly reciprocates is palpable. And…is that Nick giving the two of them the eye at one point…?
As a kid, I wondered why this soap opera nonsense was necessary in a Vietnam film. Of course, I didn’t know what was coming. That’s the beauty and wonder of The Deer Hunter. It challenges you to follow along with this miniature melodrama to give meaning to what comes next.
There is a key moment during the reception when an Army soldier wearing a green beret stops by the reception. Mike, Nick, and Steven (John Savage), who are gung-ho about serving their country, yell their support and let him know how much they’re looking forward to killing the enemy. The steely-eyed soldier raises his glass, looks away, and says, “Fuck it.” It’s not terribly subtle, but the ominous nature of this moment always fills me with a sense of foreboding, even having seen the film many times by now.
But even after the reception is over, there is one more small-town pit stop to make before the movie gets to Vietnam. (In fact, The Deer Hunter spends surprisingly little time in Vietnam.) Michael and a group of friends including Nicky and Stan (John Cazale) go hunting for deer in the mountains as a kind of ritual before Nick, Mike, and Steven are deployed. It is in this sequence that Oscar-winning cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond’s talents are put to stunning use. We are shown vistas of the Allegheny Mountains that are simply breathtaking, with Mike and his friends seen as mere dots in the mountainsides. Choral music with a men’s choir singing in Russian is heard on the soundtrack, giving the sequence a majestic aura that must be seen and heard to be believed.
Then the hunt is over, and the boys all have one last drunken night at the bar owned by another friend, John (George Dzundza in an under-appreciated, realistic performance). Here they all sing along to Frankie Valli and listen somberly as John plays a sad classical tune on his piano. And then, in one of the film’s masterstrokes of editing, we slam-cut immediately to the jungles of Vietnam – no boot camp, no footage of them being trained or flown over there, just suddenly they’re there and the contrast between the carnage we experience in the first few minutes of Vietnam versus the rhythms of their lives in Clairton could not be more extreme.
In a horrific but mercifully brief sequence, we watch as a Viet Cong soldier calmly walks into a burned-out village, discovers a hidden pit holding terrified villagers, and remorselessly tosses a grenade inside. We then watch as Mike, now a battle-hardened soldier, emerges from a hiding place with a flamethrower and burns the VC soldier alive.
The effect of this scene cannot be understated. To witness Michael torching a soldier, even after that soldier committed a brutal act himself, is jarring. And why is it so jarring? Because we have seen Mike as a civilian, as a friend, as a would-be lover, during that lengthy sequence at the wedding reception and while hunting with his friends. Admittedly, you got the sense that he could or would get violent if necessary. (He’s clearly the alpha male of his “clique.”) But this…I mean, damn.
Then, in one of those Hollywood conveniences that never get old, Mike is unexpectedly reunited with Nick and Steve who just happened to arrive at that very same village with another platoon of US soldiers. And then, immediately after being reunited, they are captured by enemy forces, imprisoned with several enemy combatants in a riverside compound, and forced by their sadistic keepers to play Russian roulette with each other as the guards bet on the outcome. Michael comes up with a horrifyingly logical escape plan: convince the guards to put THREE bullets in the chamber instead of one.
Much has been made regarding the historical inaccuracy of this scene. To those arguments, I say: who cares? As someone once said, riffing from Mark Twain, “Never let facts get in the way of truth.” The truth of the matter is, the Vietnam experience was a modern-day horror show, leaving physical and psychic scars on its participants and on our country. In my opinion, the Russian roulette scene can be interpreted as a symbol of how those soldiers, or ANY soldiers, must have felt every single day. Going on a routine patrol in the jungle could have potentially lethal circumstances. They rolled the dice every time they called in an airstrike, betting they didn’t get firebombed themselves. Booby traps were everywhere. How is life in a war zone that much different from being given a one-in-six chance at living or dying?
I’ve already gone into far more spoilers than I am accustomed to, so let’s just say this happens and that happens, Michael winds up making it back home, Steven is grievously wounded in the escape attempt, and Nick goes AWOL when, after making it back to a military hospital in Saigon, he wanders the streets at night and discovers an underground ring of lunatics who run a high-stakes game of Russian roulette. And we’re still just at the mid-point of the film.
When we see Michael back home, the earlier sequences establishing the rhythms of small-town life and his feelings towards Linda, for example, all come into focus. We need that reception and the hunting scenes so we can see how much Michael has changed. For example, when Michael is arriving back home by taxi, still in full military dress, he spots a huge banner: “WELCOME HOME MICHAEL”. He tells the driver to keep going. In a hotel room later that night, he sits on the edge of his bed and rocks back and forth, winding up crouching against the wall. He is completely unable to process how to deal with people anymore. Or, at least, he doesn’t trust what he will or won’t say. I watch that scene, and I feel such intense sympathy and empathy. What he’s feeling, what he’s been through, what he’s seen, is so huge that he knows he’ll never be able to explain it to anyone who hasn’t been there. He knows he’ll get questions like, “What was it like? Did you kill anyone? How are you feeling? Where’s Nicky?” I’ll never know what it’s like to fight in a war, but if I had gone through what he’d gone through, I wouldn’t have stopped either.
There is a heartbreaking scene where Linda, who is more than a little distraught that Nicky is AWOL, hesitantly suggests to Michael that they go to bed. “Can’t we just comfort each other?” Mike rebuffs her, but in a way that makes it clear he’d like to, regardless. De Niro’s performance here is staggering. As he walks out, he makes a statement, showcasing how much he is feeling but also how unable he is to articulate it: “I feel a lot of distance, and I feel far away.” I knew exactly what he was talking about.
The very end of The Deer Hunter is one of the most emotionally shattering finales of any movie I’ve ever seen. It ends with a simple song, first sung as a solo, then joined by everyone else at the table. I will not reveal what happens to get us there. Is it shameless manipulation? Yes. Does it work? Yes, so I can forgive the “shameless” part.
One of the criticisms I’ve read more than once about The Deer Hunter is how “one-sided” it is. To which I say, “Well, duh.” The Deer Hunter is not presented as a history lesson or a lecture on the internal politics in the country of Vietnam during the war. The Deer Hunter is intended to make us feel something. It wants to show us what happens to a person who is exposed to the very worst side of human behavior and lives to talk about it. It wants to remind us that a country can wave a flag and stand for what’s right and be willing to sacrifice its best and brightest souls for a righteous cause…but it must also be prepared for the aftermath. The Deer Hunter is a somber prayer that our country remembers the cost it demands, and that it will take care of its own when the dust settles.