The Deer Hunter (1978) / Drama-War
MPAA Rated: R for violence, language, nudity, and sexuality
Running Time: 183 min.
Cast: Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, John Savage, Meryl Streep, George Dzundza, Chuck Aspegren, Pierre Segui, Rutanya Alda
Director: Michael Cimino
Screenplay: Deric Washburn
Review published August 1, 2005
Winner of Best Picture of 1978, The Deer Hunter was the first major release to deal with the troubling issue of Vietnam head on, with an often unflinching portrayal of the horrors of the war, as well as how it virtually decimated entire communities back home. In large part, the subject was still taboo, but Cimino's (Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, Heaven's Gate) strength as a filmmaker earned him the integrity to undertake such a movie, and even if some of the politics of the film met with controversy, at least it got the nation talking, although the wounds were still far from healing. For all of the controversy, Cimino's film scores most of its points through symbolism and subtle character touches, never really preaching in the way many other films about the Vietnam experience would later do.
The film takes place in the small steel town of Clairton, Pennsylvania, a community of tight-knit Russian immigrants that are proud Americans, and are especially proud of some of their young men, who are going to war to fight in Vietnam and serve their country. The three men that are going include headstrong Michael (De Niro, Taxi Driver), dreamer Nick (Walken, Batman Returns), and the recently married Steven (Savage, White Squall). While there, they are witness to many hardships and first-hand atrocities, leaving many scars, both physical and emotional, that they will always carry, if they are lucky to make it home alive.
At over three hours in length, The Deer Hunter is a fairly slow moving piece, spending a great deal of time to get going, although that's not to say that the first hour isn't worthwhile. The film is, at its core, about the three men that go to war, and how the experience has altered them, their community, and their entire way of life forever. By investing greatly in the characters, as well as their backgrounds, we can see the impact of the war on a much larger scale than just the personal, as soldiers die, lose their limbs, or come back without all of their mental faculties.
Although Cimino and the rest did their homework regarding the steel community as well as the Vietnam experience, some creative liberties are taken. One should remember that not everything is meant to be a literal representation, and it is merely introduced for symbolic significance, so artistic license should be granted. It isn't as metaphoric as Apocalypse Now, but at the same time, not quite as subversive. This is a small story about a big and very real problem, and how it changed the country forever, one family at a time.
The Deer Hunter isn't perfect -- it does have its overdrawn moments 9the wedding scene is perhaps the longest of the film), as well as a few bits of overreaching for ironic significance (the rendition of "God Bless America" especially), but it does have a quiet power and indelible moments that stay with you forever. Fantastic performances abound, especially from Oscar winner Christopher Walken, showcasing a group of lifelong friends that feels very authentic. Must-see filmmaking of the highest order.
©2005 Vince Leo