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The Deer Hunter
1978 - R - 183 Mins.
Director: Michael Cimino
Producer: Michael Cimino & Michael Deeley & John Peverall & Barry Spikings
Written By: Deric Washburn
Starring: Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, John Savage, John Cazale, Meryl Streep
Review by: John Ulmer
   
"One shot is what it's all about. A deer has to be taken with one shot."

Some films lose their charm and become dated. Then, there are motion pictures such as "The Deer Hunter" that never become stale, and remain as haunting and deeply moving as they were when first released.

There's that particular infamous scene in "The Deer Hunter" that remains disturbing - when Michael (Robert De Niro), a Vietnam veteran, tracks down a friend of his named Nicky (Christopher Walken), who never came home after the war and is eventually found in Saigon, playing Russian Roulette for money, his mind an utter mess. He is unable to fully remember Michael and he refuses to return home. It's a sequence that's a haunting example of gut-wrenching filmmaking.

The movie has two important themes: friendship and war. With "The Lord of the Rings" featuring a somewhat overblown friendship between Frodo and Sam (that sometimes borders on being overly-sentimental goo), "The Deer Hunter" represents a portrait of true, powerful friendship. This is superior to any of the scenes between Frodo and Sam in "The Lord of the Rings," the characters here are more realistic and empathetic, the performances more convincing. When he finds Nicky surrounded by men putting wagers on his life, Michael tries to bring him home, but Nicky just spits in his face. To reveal his feelings for Nicky, Michael holds a gun to his own head. "Is this what you want?" he taunts. "I love you, Nicky." And then he pulls the trigger and the barrel clicks: empty. Michael's face suddenly drains, a reflection of his inner relief.

This movie features some of the greatest acting in the history of cinema. Walken picked up the coveted Best Supporting Actor Academy Award in his breakthrough debut (his short role in "Annie Hall" notwithstanding), although to this day many viewers argue that De Niro should have gone home with Best Actor as well (he was nominated). The movie itself was nominated for nine Oscars and won five.

The Vietnam sequences take place midway through the movie, serving as a connection between the beginning and the end, both of which study the lives of the men and not the war around them. Michael, Nicky and Steven (John Savage) are young Pennsylvanian miners drafted into the 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 find themselves taken hostage in a Vietnamese POW camp where their captors force them to play Russian Roulette. 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.

After a series of fortunate events, Michael, Nicky and Steven escape and make their way downriver. All three men are eventually rescued, Nicky via helicopter and Michael and Steven later on. Steven's battered, infected legs are amputated and he is left helpless in a wheelchair. Michael returns home as well only to find that Nicky is still back in Vietnam. Nicky's girlfriend back home, Linda (Meryl Streep), begins to fall in love with Michael, but Michael soon remembers his promise to Nicky ("If I don't make it back, don't leave me over there") and travels over 2,000 miles back into the middle of his own personal hell to find and rescue his best friend. It's hard for him to understand why Nicky doesn't recognize him when he finally tracks him down. "It's me, Mike." "Mike who?"

Causing mass controversy upon its release because of its alleged "racist" content regarding the Vietnamese, a crowd of Vietnam veterans gathered around outside the Oscars ceremony and caused riots as well, claiming that the film was "not accurate" and somehow insulting to the veterans of the war.

However as many film historians, authors and critics have pointed out, the film is never meant to be a 100% accurate depiction of the events in Vietnam. It is not really a Vietnam War picture at all. Instead, it is a focus on the aftermath of war, and how damaging it can be, both physically and mentally, to its participants. Because of the era that "The Deer Hunter" was released in, Vietnam was a recent event, the focus of the nation, and is therefore used as a more convenient -- and relative -- backdrop (much like "Apocalypse Now"). Unlike "Platoon" this is not a movie relating specifically to the Vietnam War, in fact less than a half an hour is devoted to the war scenes. It is a character study, and accusations of racism -- although justified to some extent -- are secondary as the film itself is not concerned with bashing the participants of the war as it is the war itself.

It is the film's necessary setup that is often called long and boring and, ironically, unnecessary, but this is essentially 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. Instead, we are given scenes with weddings, discussions, and hunting trips -- normal events. Then, the end chronicles the aftermath of the damaging events in the lives of Michael, Steven, Nicky and their loved ones. Michael has a hard time adapting to his normal life. It would be hard for anyone, after experiencing such damaging events and images.

De Niro made a few post-Vietnam films during the '70s and '80s, the most famous being "Taxi Driver," in which Travis Bickle was totally unable to find his way in life again after the war and resorted to violence in order to justify his existence and release his anger. "The Deer Hunter" is similar in approach but reveals more background; this would be a suitable prequel of sorts if the names had been changed.

Over the years "The Deer Hunter" has gained a fairly bad reputation -- most of which stems back to the controversy surroundings its release and its protested accolades. Director Michael Cimino's follow-up ("Heaven's Gate") was an enormous flop, bankrupting United Artists, and he has had a hard time finding work afterwards. His first feature film, "Thunderbolt and Lightfoot," which starred Clint Eastwood and Jeff Bridges, was a buddy road movie that was also a sign of things to come in Cimino' later features, most notably the process of male bonding, which is a huge primal element in this project. Cimino was an extremely talented and visionary director, and it's a shame that the ambition of "Heaven's Gate" cost him his career.

"The Deer Hunter" is still one of the finest works of American cinema, a touching, poignant and ultimately depressing film that asks us if the effects of war extend past the physical and into the realm of human mentality.
 
Movie Guru Rating
A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic.
  5 out of 5 stars

 
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