The Vietnam War wrought havoc on millions of lives in a way that may never understand. The war was the personal calamity of the generation called upon to fight it. In the jungles of that ravaged country, they were the ones who faced the terrible choices. And in the end, many Americans returned home knowing they could never be the same again.
Of all the films dealing with the impact of the war on American culture and conscience, The Deer Hunter is definitely the most affecting and compelling. The three-hour drama that unfolds before our eyes makes no case for or against the war. Instead it focuses on the ways in which three close friends were shaped, shattered, and transformed by their experiences in Vietnam. As its theme demands, the film is extremely violent. But the story's lasting impression is on our emotions. It asks us to feel its textures, ambivalences, and pains with our hearts rather than with our heads.
The time is 1968 and the place is a small Pennsylvania town where five friends work in a large steel mill. Michael (Robert De Niro), Nick (Christopher Walken), Steven (John Savage), Stan (John Cazale), and Axel (Chuck Aspegren) find an escape from the monotony and discomfort of their jobs at a bar run by John Welch (George Dzundza). There they shoot the bull, drink beer, and carouse in fraternal glee.
The entire Slavic community is drawn together for the wedding of Steven and Angela (Rutanya Alda) at the Russian Orthodox Church. Afterwards, they have a rousing celebration in an American Legion hall. The event is really a farewell party for Michael, Nick, and Steven, who are bound for Vietnam. In a key sequence, they meet a Green Beret at the bar and ask him what it's like over there. Sullen and cynical, he responds with a four-letter epithet.
In the early hours of the morning, the five buddies head off to the mountains for their last deer hunt. While the others treat the trip with a certain amount of jocularity, Michael regards it as a religious ritual. He goes off by himself and, following a private code, brings down a deer with one shot.
Back in town, the friends meet at the bar. When the words give way, John Welch seats himself at the piano and plays a Chopin nocturne. It's a brilliant and beautiful moment. The five are drawn together in a silent bond that is more emotionally rich than a thousand goodbyes.
The next scene plunges us into Vietnam. A Viet Cong attack on a village ends with a soldier blowing up a group of terrified villagers hiding in an underground cubbyhole. Michael incinerates the man with a flamethrower.
He later meets up with Nick and Steven. Their mettle is tested when they are captured by the Viet Cong and forced to play Russian roulette in teams before their captors. In what has to be one of the most unrelenting and terrifying sequences of any movie, Michael, Nick, and Steven put pistols to their temples while the Viet Cong take bets on who will live and who will die when they pull the triggers.
Somehow through this harrowing experience, Michael finds within himself the determination to survive. He struggles desperately to transmit that resolve and courage to his two best friends. Although they pull off a masterful escape, Steven is reduced to the status of a whimpering child, and Nick loses his last ounce of sanity. The three are eventually separated again.
Michael returns home with medals on his chest but cannot face a welcoming party. He visits a veteran's hospital and finds Steven has lost both legs. Longing for the camaraderie of the past, Michael takes Stan, John, and Axel on a hunting trip. But his private ritual is now alien to him.
In the last sequence of the film, Michael goes back to Saigon to find Nick. He discovers that his friend has become the lead performer in a gambling joint where a decadent group of Vietnamese, Frenchmen, and Americans wager on players in successive games of Russian roulette. The metaphor, twice repeated, gathers momentum. We realize that the war has made death into a game of chance. And in that room, everyone is a victim emptied of humanity.
The Deer Hunter ends with Nick's funeral. Michael and the others gather in John's saloon. The weather outside is grey and cold. Again small talk and efforts to convey what they are feeling give way to silence. Then one of them begins singing "God Bless America." All join in this spontaneous act. And in their faces and cracked voices we see and hear a fragile note of hope.
Michael Cimino's epic, winner of the Best Picture Academy Award in 1979, is a cinematic triumph and a powerful celebration of the dignity of ordinary individuals in peace and war. Robert De Niro's performance is an intense tour de force, and Christopher Walken and Meryl Streep put in fine character portraits. All three performances were nominated for Oscars. John Savage, John Cazale, George Dzundza are also notable. Vilmos Zsigmond's highly creative cinematography took home another Academy Award.
This movie treats its characters with respect. Hence, the themes of friendship, love, loss, terror, and pain ring true. Most of the magic moments in The Deer Hunter come when there is a merciful end to words. It has been said that the heart is only half a prophet. Michael Cimino has proven just the opposite to be true the heart, when it makes the most of its silences, is a prophet complete.