I'd like to spank the Academy

The Deer Hunter (1978)

the-deer-hunterThe Deer Hunter
Directed by Michael Cimino

I knew The Deer Hunter was about Vietnam; I didn’t know that it was going to hurt my heart so badly.

So what’s the story? Mike, Steve, Nick, John, Stan, and Axel are a group of regular guys. They celebrate together, drink together, hang out together, hunt together. But then Mike, Nick, and Steve sign up to go fight in Vietnam. Their decision will change everyone’s lives forever.

The Good: In order to hurt the audience so much, the screenplay and actors first had to make us care about this group of very normal friends from a small town in Pennsylvania. Steve’s wedding is the setting to showcase the personalities of this diverse group. Mike (Robert De Niro) is slightly more mature than his friends. He takes things that he cares about very seriously. Nick (Christopher Walken) cares deeply about his friends and his girlfriend, Linda (Meryl Streep). Steven (John Savage) is so in love and so excited to marry Angela (Rutanya Alda) that he is willing to ignore the opinions that his Russian mother has about his fiance. Stan (John Cazale) is a ladies man who can’t understand anyone else’s point of view. John (George Dzundza) sings in the church choir, runs his bar, and is generally content with his life. He takes it upon himself to be the general peacemaker in the group and feels bad that his bad knees prevent him from going to Vietnam with his friends. Axel (Chuck Aspegren) is a good-hearted goofball who only seems to know one phrase. This extended setup not only makes us care, but it makes it hurt so much more when Mike, Steve, and Nick change so much, which the actors portray so heart-breakingly well. There is more that I want to say about the acting and the screenplay, but I’m trying so hard not to spoil anything for anyone. I will say this: some of the changes that people go through are more subtle than others; Christopher Walken does a ridiculously incredible job as Nick; I was glad that The Deer Hunter only showed some of the Vietnam War, because then you were able to feel the atrocities of war without being overwhelmed by them; and if you watch closely, the story mirrors itself, allowing the viewers to see people’s different reactions to the same or similar events. (If you’ve seen it and want to discuss it with me in the comments, be sure to label it if you put in spoilers.)

The music is beautiful and unobtrusive. The soundtrack is more classical than other soundtracks from 1978; no wailing saxophones here. The use of classical and popular music is managed very well. The chosen songs fit the moment they are in exactly. Stanley Meyers’s original theme, “Cavatina (Theme from The Deer Hunter)”, is fabulous, played quietly by guitarist John Williams (no, not THAT John Williams). It is iconic, one of those pieces that will always be associated with this movie. When I write these reviews, I usually like to listen to the soundtrack of the film I’m reviewing, but listening to “Cavatina” breaks my heart all over again, so I had to listen to other instrumental music so that I wasn’t too sad to write.

The editing was brutally disorienting at times. One moment the gang is all happy at home, and the next, Mike is fighting for his life in Vietnam. These cuts happen throughout the movie, and they can be disconcerting because we have no idea how we got there or what happened between the scenes. But life feels that way sometimes when we suddenly look around and realize where we are in life and then wonder how we got there. It’s also how we tell stories to people. No one ever says, “The ground starting shaking, and so I got in my car and drove down Main and then I turned right onto Elm and left onto High Street, went straight for two miles, and then I saw a monster rising out of the ground!” We leave out things that are not pertinent to the story. That’s why this editing works for this movie; it’s a story about everyday people, and the editing reflects that.

The Bad: Mike was a little too mature and heroic to be believable as a person. He’s too close to perfection for my liking.

The Ugly: Scenes of war will always be ugly and brutal and sad, which is why I’m glad The Deer Hunter acknowledges that no one is unaffected by war, and why I am also glad that the filmmakers were somewhat restrained in how much actual brutality they put into this movie.

Oscars Won: Best picture; best actor in a supporting role (Christopher Walken); best director; best sound; best film editing.

Other Oscar Nominations: Best actor in a leading role (Robert De Niro); best actress in a supporting role (Meryl Streep); best writing, screenplay written directly for the screen; best cinematography.

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