Review: THE DEER HUNTER (1978)

By Darin Skaggs

At the Oscars in celebration for the year 1978 Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter won the Oscar for Best Picture. It is a movie taking on the task of the very controversial Vietnam War. Some people thought it was good we went into Vietnam, but most people including Cimino as proven by the tone of this film did not agree with anything we did in Vietnam. It stars Robert De Niro, Chirstopher Walken and John Savage who play great friends and go off to war for their country. The three hour movie, more on that later, is shown in three acts: home life before the war, war, and home life after the war. The difference of the before and after war life, which is at time heavy handed, is effective. It is a great accomplishment that might be a tad overrated.

Like I said the film stars Robert De Niro as Michael, who is the leader of our little band of misfits and a man’s man who will go hunting while throwing down a beer and cry at anything patriotic. He is joined in the army with his friends Nick played by Walken and newlywed Steven played by Savage. They leave at home the lovely Linda played by Meryl Streep and other friend Stan played by John Cazale. They go to war and show one of the most powerful and intense scenes put to film as the friends are forced to play Russian roulette for the entertainment of their capturers. They escape and try to continue to live after their intense troubles.

This movie is very well made. The acting all around is wonderful, but Robert De Niro, who at this point was popping out great performances like bunny rabbits, carries this film so well. He has some lines that if performed by someone else could fall flat, but De Niro is fantastic as the lead. There are smash cuts to the next scene just as you were getting comfortable with previous. It shows how the minds of our characters are in sort of disarray, if not Cimino saying the whole world was in disarray because of the choices our country made. There is no enlisting for the army, there is no trip to Vietnam, and we don’t even meet a General in charge. We just cut to complete chaos in Vietnam. This also helps out because the look of the film is astonishing. Even in the American scenes Cimino along with cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond find the perfect lit, composed shot to give us a wonderfully beautiful film.

Unfortunately because Cimino, and screenwriter Deric Washburn, are so one sided on what this story is trying to say it comes off a little conceited. There are moments in the time before heading off to war that will come back into play later. Some work, but few just don’t. Michael, at the reception of Steven’s wedding, sees an army vet who is not too thrilled to be one. Michael flips out at him saying hating being a solider is hating America. Of course De Niro’s performance post war has to be more like the vet in this scene and on rewatch just seems like poor set up. There are a lot of moments that could, on the page, seem as very bad set up but with the performances and cinematography plenty of them work. It sets up a love triangle with Nick, Mike and Linda which plenty of movies have done before and surely after. This story goes almost nowhere which is something that would bug most and it would be called a flaw. In this one though it is dropped, Mike does not care about love anymore he does not want to deal with those real emotions and Nick can’t even convince himself to come home after what the group has been through.

With all the heavy handedness, it makes it work as an effective movie. The real flaw in this film is its desire to be an epic, its desire to be a three hour film. Some scenes last too long, the wedding for instance is so lengthy it seemed to go on forever. This stops it from being one of the best ever made, if some of the fat and awkward set up were out it might have been considered some of my favorites. Nevertheless it is quite the film and should be praised for all its accomplishments.


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