Classic Film Review: The Deer Hunter (1978)

And the Oscar Goes to:

The Deer Hunter, 1978

Directed by: Michael Cimino

Starring: Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep, John Savage, John Cazale, Christopher Walken, George Dzundza

 

Little did Meryl Streep (Kramer vs. Kramer) know after her Oscar nomination (for Best Supporting Actress) in The Deer Hunter that she’d go on to receive 20 nominations, the most nominations from the Academy Awards for any actor. The Deer Hunter is an American epic war drama set before, during and after a stint in the Vietnam War. Robert De Niro stars as S/Sgt. Mike Vronsky, one of the three soldiers deployed to Vietnam (the others being Cpl. Nick Vhevotarevich (Christopher Walken, Annie Hall) and Cpl. Steven Pushkov (John Savage)). The first act focuses on Steven’s wedding, with the second on their time in Vietnam, including the now iconic scenes of their game of Russian Roulette with a gun, and the third act is the aftermath of their time there, mainly revolving around Mike’s return home as he hunts down his friends whom he lost in Vietnam.

Of the three war epics so far on this countdown (The Deer Hunter, The Hurt Locker and Platoon) this was my favourite, and even its running time of three house (which throughout the Oscar winners of the 1980’s I was against, but that was more due to the films that had this time limit than the time limit itself) wasn’t too much of an issue. It was clearly split into three with each getting about an hour’s worth of screen time, allowing for character and plot developments (from Linda (Meryl Streep, Out of Africa) and her relationships (initially with Nick before being with Mike), Steven and Angela’s (Rutanya Alda) wedding and their baby and the group’s dynamic, including their love of deer hunting and hanging out together). This time dedicated to these things made for the third act to appear that much more emotionally powerful, as the battered and broken remains of the three soldiers (Steven lost his legs and was ashamed and Nick refused to come home, forgetting, seemingly due to heroin use, about Mike and everything connecting to home). The time spent on their games of Russian Roulette was also brilliant, as it allowed for genuine worry about each round. Every time a gun was pointed to a head the character looked genuinely petrified, and the build up to raising the gun alone was enough to scare them, and having this time and not rushing their game made it all the more terrifying.

The acting, as briefly mentioned by their game of Russian Roulette and Streep’s Oscar nomination, is really good. De Niro is fantastic in his lead and all the group’s friendly dynamic comes across as authentic due to their acting skills. This was also the last film to feature John Cazale, an actor with a perfect record with regards to films: every film he appeared in was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar: The Godfather (1972), The Godfather Part II (1974), The Godfather Part III (1990, using archival footage), The Conversation (1974) (all directed by Francis Ford Coppola), Dog Day Afternoon (1975) and The Deer Hunter (1978). His unfortunate death meant he couldn’t carry on this perfect record, but it’s quite an accomplishment.

The look of this film is beautiful, with the right soundtrack to capture the feeling of what’s going on (ranging from pop songs at the wedding to war sounds in Vietnam), and its editing was beautiful: long shots where long shots were needed, editing cuts that perfectly matched the tone of the film, it was all brilliant, and quite rightly earned the victory in the Best Film Editing and Best Sound categories at the Oscars.

Really well done acting, a brilliant soundtrack overlapping some gorgeously shot scenes, nice character development and a clear structure and message, The Deer Hunter is a brilliant war film even though it doesn’t spend too long on the war itself. With some iconic moments, and for setting off Streep’s career, The Deer Hunter quite rightly earned its Best Picture Oscar.

 

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