For me, very few films have captured the true horrors of the Vietnam war. Even those that do have the expected, glazed over expression that Hollywood adaptations often offer up. I think back to the likes of Platoon or Full Metal Jacket, films that offered up relatively safe, but still damned good representations of what went on in Vietnam throughout the 1960s and 1970s. The Deer Hunter, directed by Michael Cimino, was the first major adaptation of how the Vietnam war impacted the soldiers and their families. Following three plucky friends who enlist and find themselves in their own personal hell, the film presents us a relatively close-knit group, and the horrors they face.
The beauty of Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter is found in its pacing. How long it takes for us to actually head into the fray of Vietnam, and how much time we spend celebrating the lives of this group of friends is instrumental in how the rest of the story plays out. Fleshing out these characters as best they can, we find ourselves in strong company thanks to the stacked cast of heavy hitters on display. Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, Meryl Streep and John Cazale all make for formidable stars and intensely enjoyable performers. Cimino holds it all together with a brilliant sense of the inevitable reality these men face, and how the war will change their lives permanently.
I’ve seen many be critical of the opening ninety minutes, which is more or less a slow-paced look at the lives of this group and the friendship that flowers between them all. These moments aren’t just superb, but truly integral to how the film orchestrates its broader points and development. A nice introduction to characters we’ll be spending a great deal of time with, and the payoff for this build-up is phenomenal. Showing the fallout of war also is an integral piece for Michael (De Niro), we see his inability to repatriate himself into the civilian lifestyle, and these moments are arguably the most emotionally charged parts of the film.
The tension that broods in the corners of this keeps the film together in such an exceptional fashion. Walken and De Niro enjoy some brilliant scenes with one another, and they become a formidable aspect of the film. Cimino keeps them at the heart of his film rather well, his direction never wavering from a story of two friends taking different paths to recuperation after the Vietnam war. The final confrontation between the two is masterful, a well-crafted, scene that brings out the best in both performers. If anything, that scene alone manages to capture the message the film would like to present us, and the impact of post-war destruction on the minds of American troops is captured perfectly here.
Even now, the war in Vietnam serves as a popular backdrop to fiction, most recently with Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods. Yet another film to add to the ever-growing pile, another one that can’t stand up to the truly superb work on offer in The Deer Hunter. It’s an incredible feat, one that brings out some excellent performances and thoroughly likeable characters. Well made both technically and artistically, The Deer Hunter easily holds its legacy as one of the all-time greats of the genre.