Title: The Deer Hunter
Release Date: 8 December, 1978
Oscar Ceremony: 9 April, 1979
Director: Michael Cimino
Starring: Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, Meryl Streep, John Cazale
Nominees: Coming Home, Heaven Can Wait, Midnight Express, An Unmarried Woman
“No, it’s an American name.” – Nick Chevotarevich, when an army doctor asks him if his name is Russian.
I’ve never really felt the need to watch The Deer Hunter. I’ve always heard of it, but the only thing I knew was that it was about the Vietnam war. If you’ve been reading my blog, you’re familiar with my increasing exasperation towards war epics, so you know I probably wouldn’t go out of my way to watch this. Surprisingly, it’s not as war-packed as you’d think; not-so-surprisingly, it doesn’t quite make the best use of its time.
Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken and John Savage play Michael, Steven and Nick, three young Russian-American men about to go off to fight in the Vietnam War. They live in a small working class town in Pennsylvania along with some of their friends, including Stan, played by the late John Cazale (who died of lung cancer shortly after filming was completed). Meryl Streep also has a significant – but supporting- role as Nick’s fiance. The movie is divided into three “acts.” The first one is almost entirely taken up by Steven’s wedding, and focuses on setting the scene and introducing us to the characters. The second one portrays Michael, Nick and Steven’s lives as soldiers in Vietnam, and the third one deals with how the war has affected all the characters.
I can see why this movie got so much praise. Its main forte is the fact that it’s packed with talent. The actors all deliver some of the most nuanced and intense performances I’ve ever seen, which is not easy given their characters’ particular nature. Also, watching this in 2017 and seeing how young Meryl Streep, Robert De Niro and Christopher Walken were is just so fun. It’s like looking at old photographs of your parents and wondering what their lives must have been like before you came around. I realize that this is not a feeling that people had back in 1979, but I’m sure they were still very impressed and probably thought “gee, these actors are gonna be around for a while!”
The Deer Hunter‘s major problem, however, is its pace. It’s three hours long, so from the start you expect it to be slow – and it is. It takes over an hour just to set the mood. At first, it’s interesting, but eventually you realize you’ve been watching for over 45 minutes and literally nothing has happened yet. If you’re looking for classic conflict, this isn’t the movie for you. Anyways, just when you’re about to fall asleep, things suddenly jump to gunshots and bloodshed in Vietnam. War aficionados will be disappointed, because there’s actually very little footage of it. It’s not long before we’re taken back to the Pennsylvania town, where things are once again terribly slow. Finally, without spoiling anything, the ending unravels quite quickly. If I try to analyze things, I guess the slow pace at the beginning could represent the tranquility of everyday life, in contrast to the rapid, violent pace of the war scenes. Still, it feels a bit messy. It’s not quite clear what type of audience it’s trying to reach.
Another problem actually lies within some of the movie’s best scenes. One of them takes place during a very tense situation when Michael, Nick and Steve are captured as POW by the Viet Cong and forced to play a vicious game of Russian Roulette. While the suspense, acting and symbolism are at their best, there’s something that bothers me: there were absolutely no documented cases of Russian Roulette during the Vietnam War. It wasn’t a thing; it’s a fabrication of the director’s mind that he’s trying to make happen. I know that shouldn’t necessarily matter, but once you know, it’s difficult to overlook and it quickly loses its effect. It becomes clear that the Vietnam War is mostly used as a vehicle to illustrate human struggles and difficulties in relationships. Maybe in the end that’s actually interesting.
Finally, The Deer Hunter suffers from a lot of forced symbolism. Robert De Niro’s character in particular has some lines that, at face value, seem really deep, but when you think about it, they’re really not. They’re decorative fluff, which is a shame because the movie doesn’t need that. In fact, it could benefit from some cuts here and there, and that includes some of those moments. The funny thing is that despite a few issues, I realized that The Deer Hunter stuck with me. I had no trouble connecting to the characters, and by the end of it all I felt emotional. There is something really genuine about the film and sometimes it feels like you’re part of the characters’ inner circle. I found it really refreshing to see a war film that deeply focused on both the before and after phases, and helped us realize that some struggles are universal.