United States, 1978
Directed by Michael Cimino
With Robert De Niro (Michael), Christopher Walken (Nick), Charlie Savage (Steven), Meryl Streep (Linda)
Men have their rituals. The moments and places of these rituals naturally carry them away from the constraints of work and family and drive them right at the heart of their passions; above all, they bring them together. It could be going to a friend’s bar, or hunting, or marrying. These friendly and manly moments are eagerly expected, thoroughly prepared, and enjoyed to the full by the bunch of mates at the center of the narrative. They make up the first part of the movie, which is the longest and the most elaborate. Director Michael Cimino takes a leisurely pace to depict these events and does not spare the audience any detail as the events span from one afternoon to the following day’s evening.
The sequence in the friend’s bar, the film’s second, presents the lead characters in a laid-back and congenial atmosphere even though Michael, Steven, and Nick are drafted to go to Vietnam in a few days’ time and Steven is to get married in the evening. This marriage and the ensuing party are shot in a rigorous and amazingly confident way: long shots and close-ups effortlessly and flawlessly mingle in a vast pattern that simultaneously give a motley crowd a unique and powerful dynamic and enlighten the various faces in the crowd. The festive atmosphere overwhelms, but the most precious gift of the sequence is to let deep feelings slowly going to the surface, whether they are Michael’s sentiments or the hints that omens may not be good for these people. The hunt that brings back together the three comrades is a different business; this is an endeavor to be taken seriously despite its entertaining purpose. This is the moment when some cracks appear inside the group, shedding another light on the aloof character of Michael. It also sets a new direction for the film, as the director displays a breathtaking ability to shoot terrific landscapes and the entire sequence suggests the peculiar bond men and nature can share, at least, once again, in the specific case of Michael.
War is a disruption. There is no transition from the first part to the next as a rendition of the nocturne no. 6 in G minor by Fryderyk Franciszek Chopin in the friend’s bar abruptly ends with the distant whir of the blades of a chopper suddenly appearing in a foreign sky. Violence is permanent and gruesome and communities cannot stay together: either people die or flee. Worse than that, war can create its own and distorted rituals. Michael, Steve, and Nick are captured and are forced by Vietcong fighters to play at the so-called Russian roulette. They survive the horror and even manage to escape and to reach Saigon. But they are no longer ready to fight again. Steven is wounded and Michael seems to have vanished. Nick gets lost in Saigon, where he discovers the Russian roulette game that made him suffer so much has become a gambling activity; the dreaded ritual has taken a new lease of life in the civilian society and it lies in the streets like a trap for the weak.
No continuity is offered to step in the third and final part. It centers on Michael as he comes back to the Pennsylvanian industrial town he and his pals live and has a more intimate take (more medium shots, more close-ups, more bedrooms too). From the beginning, when he panics and asks the taxi driver not to stop at the bar, he appears a different man, clearly ill at ease. The rest of his journey is about sharing again old bonds; this proves uneasy. Steven hides away in a veterans’ hospital where he was admitted and now he does not dare to leave it. Nick is still AWOL and his absence is a burden for Linda who once promised herself to him and does not realize that Michael loves her, truly, deeply, shyly. Other friends are still around, a little older, a bit diffident about the hero status of Michael, but ready to have a good time together. It fails, the first time in a discreet way as Michael does not really enjoy himself at the bowling and the next time in a more dramatic way as he quarrels with a mate and trains his gun on him. And this time he can’t shoot the deer he tracks. The former warrior is now unable to shoot and kill and desperately seeks to get a little of that human touch (the human touch – this is the title of a song by Bruce Springsteen, who wrote some of the strongest lyrics on the aftermath of the Vietnam War with “Born in the USA”, but he does not feature in the film’s soundtrack, a remarkably apt choice of music and songs that either illustrate thoughtfully the period or highlight powerfully increase the most emotional plot points, especially the beautiful “Cavatina” composed by Stanley Myers).
He feels compelled to go back to Vietnam to bring Nick back. Saigon is now on the verge of falling in the communists’ hands; in the midst of chaos, Michael crosses hellish streets and canals to take part in a final game of Russian roulette that eventually kills Nick. The funeral that follows put all the main characters together again and their rendering of “God bless America” brings the movie to conclusion.
As it happened, it also brings its deeper meaning. This is not a nationalistic pronouncement or a naïve expression: only a pressing and spontaneous need to use a common reference. The whole intent of Cimino is to paint a community of men; the ambition, leading to decisive stylistic choices, is to let the audience share this particular sentiment, to let them absorb the friendly atmosphere those men are seeking. The course of the war is not really the topic (it seems that Vietnam was not really a topic of conversation during the film’s shooting); it is rather the dislocation and the disruption the destructive event defined as war can wreck upon such a group. To bring back the sense of community is a huge challenge, even more as it is deeply needed in the face of a loss.
The beauty of nature that regularly appears rather fits a solitary mind. It stands as a background to the daily lives of the people (or the warriors) and it also offers a grandiose opening to another world, and when Michael decisively changes his mind it even brings a cosmic sense of belonging to life.
Such a vision calls for serious discussion but was a cause for arguments. Some have regretted the one-sided, rude, vision of Asia “The Deer Hunter” conveys. The detailed and moving depictions of the Americans stand in contrast with the simplistic pictures of the Vietnamese people, who seem to be just a raucous and hostile group of undifferentiated people. This image may match the stereotypes that Americans had back then on this part of the world and the feelings of young Americans brutally dropped in this remote land and keen to paint everyone with the same brush are taken into account in an uncritical and sympathetic way by the director. But then the viewpoint of these particular fellow countrymen is exactly what he wanted to show and it does not ensue such a choice does imply there is a racist overtone in Cimino’s approach. The man after all can also shoots the plight of Vietnamese fleeing battlegrounds in a poignant way.
It may well be that there is no proof of the use of the Russian roulette as a tool of torture among the Vietcong, but what Cimino was looking for is a symbolic and contentious ritual; he came up with this idea and he is within his artist’s rights to use it and make his point on the fascination on death, a death willfully viewed as a gamble, with all the consequences for whoever falls prey to this idea. Anyway, the film is not on the same footing as, say, “Apocalypse Now” (1979): to shoot a fastidious description of the Vietnam War is not the sole possibility to deal with this particular moment in American history (indeed, the second part lasts barely 40 minutes out of a runtime of three hours).
As critic Roger Ebert noted, “The Deer Hunter” “gathers you up, it takes you along, it doesn’t let up.” Cimino has fully succeeded in chronicling the life of an American community as it navigates a difficult time in history. Brilliant performances by a terrific cast (in particular Robert De Niro, wonderfully subdued in his feelings and Meryl Streep at the dawn of a successful career) give the story a genuine ring. A particular triumph is Cimino’s ability to create compelling images that artfully depicts the horrors of the men as well as the splendors of the world, whether in the eyes of a woman or in the graceful walk of a deer.