Monday, March 12, 2012

DVD Review | The Deer Hunter (1978)

Deer Diary

by Thomas Delapa

After only two movies, more than a few pronounced him a directorial genius. Two years later, he underwent one of the fastest fade-outs in Hollywood history.

Following 1978’s Oscar-winning The Deer Hunter, Michael Cimino was considered a sure shot to join the growing superstar ranks of Scorsese, Altman and Spielberg—led by top-dog Francis Ford Coppola. But not only did Cimino’s colossal follow-up, Heaven’s Gate, flop, his career quickly went to hell in a bamboo hand basket.

Nominated for nine Oscars and a winner of five, including Best Picture and Best Director, The Deer Hunter was one of those incendiary epics that divided audiences along political battle lines in the post-sixties hangover, a.k.a. the 1970s. Though the movie was victorious over Coming Home—and star/activist Jane Fonda—it didn’t win the hearts and minds of left-leaning audiences; while both dramas dealt with the Vietnam War, Cimino’s epic was, in Fonda’s acerbic, pre-aerobic words, “a racist, Pentagon version of the war.”

While many critics fulsomely declared Deer Hunter to be a masterpiece (“Surely one of the most powerful films of the seventies,” trumpeted Stephen Schiff in the Boston Phoenix), others were more circumspect, even derisive. Nearly 35 years later, contemporary audiences may draw a blank, given that it’s aged only somewhat better than leisure suits and disco. If The Godfather, Jaws, Chinatown and Star Wars are still bright in our memories, The Deer Hunter crouches languidly on the endangered classics list.

With only one directorial effort to his credit (the underrated buddy drama Thunderbolt and Lightfoot), the Yale-educated Cimino set his sights on the definitive story of America’s lost, pre-Vietnam War innocence—not so unlike George Lucas’s nostalgic American Graffiti five years previous. But whereas Lucas’ bittersweet comedy was fresh and unpretentious, screenwriter Deric Washburn seemed to cut and paste from The Godfather, Deliverance, and Scorsese’s Mean Streets—along with a few dusty plucks from The Four Feathers—for his meditation on male camaraderie and bravado in wartime.

Cimino took a bead on a band of blue-collar buddies in a flinty, Russian-American Pennsylvania steel town. Enlisting right after his searing success in Taxi Driver, Robert De Niro is Michael, the group’s stoic alpha male, with John Savage, John Cazale and newcomer Christopher Walken sturdily bringing up the rear. (Terminally ill with cancer during the shoot, Cazale died months after its completion.) In only her second movie role, Meryl Streep spryly plays Walken’s betrothed, one of the women left waiting on the home front.

In the 2005 Universal DVD release, the gifted Hungarian/American cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond talks about his part in creating Cimino’s striking widescreen visuals, from the fiery blast furnaces to the golden interiors of the Russian Orthodox church, where the signature wedding scene takes place. A la The Godfather’s ritualistic bookends, Cimino frames his three-hour saga with the ironic pairing of one wedding and a funeral.

Sandwiched between the over-praised naturalism (several of the scenes were improvised by the cast), Washburn and Cimino shoot for the heights, yet their aim is scattershot. The overarching metaphor is Michael’s cryptic Spartan philosophy to bag a deer with “one shot,” and one shot only. As embodied in De Niro’s stolid, goateed machismo, Michael stands head and shoulders above his less-than-steely friends, a heroic coupling of James Fenimore Cooper and Ayn Rand.

In one of cinema’s most shocking jump cuts, we’re lifted from the airy Pennsylvania (actually Washington) mountains instantly into the sweltering jungles of Vietnam. In the first of a load of dubious coincidences, De Niro, Walken and Savage meet up as soldiers in the middle of a battle, and just as quickly find themselves in riverfront tiger cages, imprisoned by the Viet Cong. There, in the film’s most controversial sequence, the trio is forced to take part in their captors’ depraved game of Russian roulette.

Embedded within Cimino and Zsigmond’s vivid realism, this harrowing, wholly fabricated sequence can be viewed, at best, as symbolic of America’s self-destructive death march in Vietnam. At worst, it’s pernicious, booby-trapped propaganda that points the blame for the American tragedy in Vietnam squarely at sadistic, jabbering (“Mao! Mao!”) monsters who have nothing better to do than torture and kill defenseless G.I.s.

After a cathartic, shoot-’em-up escape that would make Dirty Harry’s day, the trio parts ways, their roads home emblematic of the wildly different fates of returning veterans (and intriguingly resonant of the dilemmas of the three soldiers in William Wyler’s far less bombastic The Best Years of Our Lives three decades earlier). While Michael returns die-hardened, if tempered, his brothers-in-arms face grimmer prospects. In perhaps the movie’s most poignant and authentic section, De Niro tracks down Savage to a V.A. hospital, where their friendship is re-forged in the face of crippling tragedy.

But Cimino isn’t satisfied with subtlety or even naturalism. He’s after bigger game. Back in Saigon during its chaotic 1975 fall to the North Vietnamese, Walken’s Nick has gone bananas, plunging into his own heart of darkness. Lured by a decadent Frenchman, the traumatized Nick is now the chief combatant in high-stakes backroom games of Russian roulette.

Whatever the nationality, Cimino gambles on lurid sensationalism, and it doesn’t pay off—now or then. In place of a sharp focus on the war and its victims, he aims for xenophobic myth; in place of cathartic realism, he shoots for muddled pulp. In the ambiguous—or laughable—last scene, Cimino waves the flag to the tune of “God Bless America,” betting that Academy Award voters would stand up and salute. They did.

Armed with his Oscar trophy and a bloated $40 million budget, Cimino nearly broke the bank (and United Artists) in his elephantine western Heaven’s Gate, one of the biggest disasters in movie history, which was instrumental in killing off the “New Hollywood” halcyon days of experiment and artistic risk. Cimino’s career has never recovered, in hindsight perhaps another indirect casualty of the hellish Vietnam War.


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