Robert De Niro stars in my new favorite war film of all time, 1978’s The Deer Hunter. Directed by Michael Cimino, the film won 5 Oscars, including Best Picture, and was nominated for 4 others. De Niro, played Michael a member of a group of guys setting out of Vietnam hopefully to change the world. De Niro is joined by Christopher Walken, John Cazale, Meryl Streep, and John Savage in the film that re-introduced tension to film and showed the brutality of war does not end when these soldiers come home.
The film begins with the boys, Michael, Steven, Nick, Stan, Axel, and John enjoying the last moments before Steven gets married. The six of them work, drink, play and fight with each other in a way that shows a great history among them. We move on to the oft discussed wedding scene that is impressive, yet is a bit long. The ramifications of the scene, Steven’s marriage, Michael and Nick both in love with Linda, and Stan’s inferiority complex are examined, and detailed, but the scene could have been at least 10 minutes shorter. The three men, Steven, Michael, and Nick are volunteering to go off to Vietnam to kick as little ass and serve their country. At this wedding reception/going away party, the men meet a man recently returned from Vietnam and get their first hint that things may not be how they expect.
We travel forward in time to a Vietnam prison camp which is a visually stunning section of the film. From this point, until the return to the United States, the film for me was absolutely perfect. We have Michael, Steven, and Nick in a prison camp together. They are down in a pit on a river, being forced into playing Russian Roulette. Steven begins to lose his nerve and cries desperately. Finally when it’s his turn to pull the trigger, he angles the gun that goes off, and for his misconduct he’s thrown into a nearly full pit surrounded by rats. In this scene we have one of the greatest showdowns in movie history where Robert De Niro’s Michael and Christopher Walken’s Nick play against each other in a forced game of Russian Roulette. The men are yelled at, slapped, and prodded until the game begins. Once the scene is over, the men are able to float down the river until help arrives. This is the point where most Hollywood movies would end the scene. Help has arrived and everything is fine. However, with this film, the story is so realistic in that Steven is trying to hold onto the helicopter but can’t keep his grip and falls onto the rocks. Michael also falls and helps him out of the river, revealing that Steven has badly injured his legs.
The last section of the film begins with Michael’s arrival home. Since his trip to Vietnam, Michael has become even more of a withdrawn character and doesn’t want the attention the young boys desperately searched for at the beginning of the film. Once he establishes himself at home, Michael tries to make the relationship with Linda work, but she’s not happy with him and misses Nick. Michael is unaware of what’s become of Steven and Nick until getting word that Steven’s wife isn’t doing so well. He visits her, then Steven himself, discovering that the fall cost Steven both of his legs and the use of his left arm. In an emotional scene Michael and Steven try to communicate but the words don’t come easily. Michael uncovers that Nick is still in Vietnam, making an obscene amount of money playing Russian Roulette and sending that money home to Steven’s wife. Michel finds Nick who doesn’t recognize him and the two men play one final game. The ending of the film shows the funeral and how these three men in this small industrial town have changed forever.
It’s really a difficult movie to discuss as there is so much involved with the film, I feel like I could go on and on about it. I’ll start with the cast and go on from there. Robert De Niro as Michael is the centerpiece of the film and his performance is what legends are made of. The intensity of the Vietnam sequence with De Niro is what makes this challenge worth doing. This is a scene and a sequence that I will never forget. The way De Niro plays quiet and crazy in this film is simply breathtaking and while I may sound like a stodgy old man, they really don’t make films like this anymore.
The only real problem I had with the cast was that Christopher Walken as Nick was the winner for Best Supporting Actor for this film and he’s hardly in the movie. He has a few terrific scenes but I would have preferred the award or at least nomination to go to John Cazale as Stan. Walken is great in his scenes, especially towards the end of the film but it’s Cazale’s Stan that’s the most memorable for me. In his final film, Cazale brings to this character a unpredictability, and is the runt of the group. Every group of friends has someone like this and while it might be easy to gloss over his performance as he’s not in Vietnam, I feel like he should receive more attention as this is truly a great performance. Finally the film can’t be discussed in any real way without mentioning Meryl Streep. Her character Linda, torn between the love of two men, is happy yet ultimately disappointed with the one that comes home. It’s a tough role and in any other hands it would be a low point in the film but the always amazing Streep shows how to make a complex character feel real and feel just in her disappointment.
What really makes the film, besides the flashy Roulette scenes is the beginning of the film. If this movie didn’t have that beginning, that long set-up for the action, the audience wouldn’t care about the people in the film and wouldn’t care if any of them died. Watching the friends and family at the wedding made me think of my own wedding which was not long ago. This felt very genuine and any film that can bring up good or bad times in the audience’s personal lives, is doing something right.
Having both a brother-in-law and father that were deployed in the military the Vietnam and coming home scenes again struck me personally. Knowing that my father was in Vietnam and that he doesn’t like to discuss it, really gives a deeper emotional impact to this film and the way the characters are portrayed. Most recently, my brother-in-law who has been in Afghanistan for the better part of a year has returned for a break and is about to head back over there. While the situations aren’t exactly the same, this topic was brought up in this film and really heighten my experience with the movie. The only drawback for some when approaching this film is that it is a three hour movie. Those three hours never dragged, outside of the wedding scene early in the film, and I was so engaged with this film and particularly these performances I could have easily watched another three hours. The Deer Hunter is a marvel of a film and one that will stick with me for a long time. If you haven’t seen this movie, please give it a chance. It’s considered one of the greatest movies of all time for a reason.