A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The Deer Hunter (Michael Cimino, 1978)

It's been some years since I last saw The Deer Hunter, and watching it again last night I found it had a different resonance for me. It was no longer a film about the Vietnam War, but instead a film about the destruction of the American industrial working class. Who is willing to bet that the steel mill in which Michael (Robert De Niro) and his buddies work is still open? And who can doubt that the group singing "God Bless America" at the film's end, and their progeny, all voted for Donald Trump, responding to his "Make America Great Again" call and helping him carry the state of Pennsylvania? The Deer Hunter didn't even start out to be a film about Vietnam: The germ of it was a screenplay by Louis Garfinkle and Quinn Redeker about people who bet on Russian roulette in Las Vegas. Michael Cimino was brought on to direct and to develop the script with Deric Washburn. Many drafts, arguments, and hurt feelings later, it had become a film about steelworker buddies who go off to Vietnam, and the Russian roulette had become first a torture method used by the Viet Cong and then a device to symbolize the destructive effect of the war on the American psyche. It remains the most controversial part of the film -- there are many who assert that Russian roulette was never used as torture or for gambling in the back streets of Saigon -- but there's no denying its dramatic potency or the larger symbolic role it plays. The great strength of the film lies not in its screenplay but in its performances, starting with De Niro, whose Michael is the embodiment of Hemingwayesque "grace under pressure." De Niro was also responsible for the casting of Meryl Streep as Linda, a small role in which she does what she can to offset the machismo in which the film is awash, and which earned her the first of her record-setting string of Oscar nominations. Along with Streep came her lover, John Cazale, whom the producers wanted to fire because he was dying of cancer and was hence uninsurable, but Streep refused to appear without him. Christopher Walken did win an Oscar as Nick, and there are memorable performances from John Savage and George Dzundza as well. It's the strength of this ensemble that keeps the film from flying out of control as Cimino's follow-up, Heaven's Gate (1980), so disastrously did. Certainly there are signs in The Deer Hunter of Cimino's fatal self-indulgence, particularly the overextended exuberance of the wedding reception scene, which anticipates the out-of-control Harvard commencement sequence in Heaven's Gate. Neither scene adds measurably to the narrative or the themes of its respective film, but Cimino bitterly fought all efforts to trim the wedding sequence in the editing process, and later claimed, after editor Peter Zinner won an Oscar, that he had edited the film himself. Because of its sloppiness and self-indulgence, I hesitate to call The Deer Hunter a great film, but it's certainly one in touch with the darkest strain of recent American history.