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With: Robert De Niro, John Cazale, John Savage, Christopher Walken, Meryl Streep, George Dzundza, Chuck Aspegren, Shirley Stoler, Rutanya Alda
Written by: Deric Washburn, based on a story by Michael Cimino, Deric Washburn, Louis Garfinkle, Quinn K. Redeker
Directed by: Michael Cimino
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 183
Date: 12/08/1978

The Deer Hunter (1978)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

One Shot

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Michael Cimino's legendary movie The Deer Hunter is less about the Vietnam War itself than it is about a rite of passage for modern -- or at least 1970s -- men. Six buddies, who are Russian Orthodox immigrants living and working in a small Pennsylvania steel town, like to drink and hunt. As the movie begins, one of them is getting married. This leads to a raucous round of drinking, and then hunting.

The serious, grim Michael (Robert De Niro), his slightly more tenderhearted buddy Nick (Christopher Walken), and Steven (John Savage) -- who has agreed to marry his girl Angela, even though she's pregnant by another man -- have signed up to go to Vietnam. Their other buddies, barman John (George Dzundza), boisterous Axel (Chuck Aspegren), and ne'er-do-well Stan (John Cazale) stay behind.

Meryl Streep stars in her first Oscar-nominated performance as Linda, the local beauty loved by both Nick and Michael.

The movie's three hours are broken into three mostly even chapters. The first hour depicts drinking, the wedding, and a deer hunt. A great deal of it doesn't seem to coincide with the movie's plot or themes, but instead simply aims to get a sense of who these guys are, what they believe in, and how they relate to one another. Michael seems to have the deepest belief of any of them, and his belief is that of "one shot." To kill a deer with more than one shot is dishonorable.

Suddenly, Vietnam rises up before us, green, hot, deadly, filled with explosions and gunshots. Michael wakes up among a field of dead and/or wounded colleagues, and torches a Vietnamese soldier. Nick and Steven find him, and the three of them are captured and forced to play Russian roulette while Vietnamese bet on the outcome.

They escape, but Steven is terribly injured, and Nick winds up going AWOL. During the third act, Michael returns to Vietnam to find him, leading to the unforgettably tragic "one shot" conclusion.

Frankly, I'm not sure I really got the correlation between these Russian immigrants and "Russian roulette." It seems to be a theme in name only. Likewise, the "one shot" idea doesn't really seem very profound. It's not explored in any visual or emotionally layered way. It's very much on the surface.

Which is not to say that this is not a very powerful, painful movie. It does not preach about the war or about the treatment of immigrants in America. It's a portrait of a community, where the weak and the strong are equal members. Even in the war, we never see, or get to know, any other American soldiers, or commanding officers. It's only our three friends from back home.

I was struck by the bustling of the remaining friends during the final scene, following a funeral. They set up tables, get coffee, cups, and silverware. They move chairs around, and they sit arbitrarily around the table, no one next to anyone else in particular. They just simply belong. The pain of any one of them is the pain of all of them.

The movie ends, memorably, with the cast singing "God Bless America." In this context, it can be interpreted, or felt, in a myriad of ways: ironically, painfully, or perhaps even patriotically. To my eyes, the meaning of that song has very little to do with the kind of "war" we just saw. The song leaves us in the audience in the same boat as the characters; it may not be our story, but it's our song, and it's up to each of us to decide what it means.

Amazingly, the film was a hit in its day, grossing something like $50 million on a $15 million budget; a film like this would never do such business today. It received nine Oscar nominations and won five, for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Christopher Walken), Best Editing, and Best Sound. De Niro and Streep did not win, and neither did Vilmos Zsigmond for his cinematography. The screenplay was also nominated. (Another Vietnam movie, Coming Home, was also a big winner that year.)

It was the final film of actor John Cazale, who only appeared in five films, all five of which were nominated for Best Picture. See also Richard Shepard's terrific documentary I Knew It Was You for more info.

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