Monday, March 14, 2011

The Deer Hunter Redux
A Look at the Film and the Controversy

I watched The Deer Hunter again recently for the first time in over 25 years. My memory of the film was shaky but I did have a strong recollection of not much caring for it the first two times around (having seen it twice in its entirety by the mid-eighties). I also recalled the controversy surrounding it and wondered if the recollection of any of that might be peppering my memory. I decided to give it another look, 25 years later, to see what it would feel like, decades removed from any controversy over the content of the film or the war in Vietnam itself. The experience was an interesting one, if not least of all for the fact that it has much to admire within its frames and much to deride. Suffice it to say, The Deer Hunter makes for a very conflicted viewing experience, giving the viewer plenty of time to process information about its characters but giving up precious few secrets about them on which to base that processing.


The film focuses on a group of friends in Clairton, PA during the height of American involvement in Vietnam. As the film opens we meet three friends who will travel to Vietnam together, Mike (Robert De Niro), Nick (Christopher Walken) and Steven (John Savage) and their buddies Stan (John Cazale), Axel (Chuck Aspegren, real life foreman of the steel mill used in the film) and John (George Dzundza). Steven is getting married to a woman pregnant by another man, Nick is in love(?) with Linda (Meryl Streep) and Mike is on his own.

As the film opens we see the three friends saying their goodbyes to coworkers as they will be leaving for duty in Vietnam after the wedding and a hunting trip. The wedding and hunting trip comprise the first third of the movie (the movie has a neatly partitioned three-act story) and it's here that the film's own storytelling conflicts reveal themselves.

The director, Michael Cimino, was coming off of his only directorial effort, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, when he took on The Deer Hunter, a story he had co-developed for a couple of years. It's hard to say anything about one movie influencing or instructing upon the other since they are so very different but it seems that Cimino combined some of the basic camaraderie elements of Thunderbolt... with the meandering mise en scène of Robert Altman to mixed effect.

That mixed effect is the result of clashing styles, something from which Altman never suffered. For instance, in the opening fifteen minutes the audience is treated to several wandering scenes of the friends saying goodbyes, joking around, drinking beers and talking about anything but how vastly different their lives will soon be. None of it is done in close-up, no one line is given any special attention and all of it feels like documentary-style eavesdropping. In the middle of this is a stilted belabored scene, mercifully brief, of the old world (Russia) mother of Steven delivering this awful piece of exposition to the priest:

"I still do not believe this. My own boy with a strange girl and not so thin, if you understand my meaning...The next thing you know, he goes to Vietnam...I do not understand, Father. I understand nothing anymore, nothing...Can you explain? Can anyone explain?"

The scene is less than a minute but it's a minute so awful and ill-fitting it lingers beyond its screen time. This example is the first instance of something that will happen throughout the movie: Long, fascinating Altmanesque sequences in which we voyeuristically gaze upon the characters weaving in and out of their own lives abruptly interrupted by obviously scripted moments. A well written movie never seems scripted. When it does, it's hard to recover. The Deer Hunter does recover, however, and for most of the first act, the Altman style dominates and renders the more obviously scripted moments bearable. But the clashing styles isn't the only problem to be overcome. The other is the clearly labeled metaphors. I must be honest right now in the interest of full disclosure: When a movie starts speaking in metaphors, it can lose me pretty fast.


While it's true that many films, and much great art, deal in metaphor, the fact is The Deer Hunter wields its metaphors in such a paint-by-the-numbers style that even the most obtuse viewer should be able to match the right colors to the right numbers every time. Most viewers would probably surmise on their own that the deer hunting rituals of Mike were religious to him without having a chorus singing Orthodox hymns behind the action. And the chorus starts right when Mike spots the deer and begins his pursuit. The Deer Hunter doesn't miss an opportunity to point out what it's doing whenever it can. This happens in the wedding sequences as well when, in the middle of several minutes (the sequence is roughly 25 minutes long) of Altmanesque perusing, our heroes happen upon a Green Beret at the bar where another obviously scripted sequence takes place to let the viewer know that the macho dreams of Mike, Nick and Steven are but puffs of smoke. It's handled well enough, much more so than the earlier mother scene, but is unnecessary. In fact, it's completely unnecessary, so much so that the viewer feels a bit insulted that the scene is even happening.

After the wedding and hunting sequences the gang heads back to town, goes to John's bar, drinks some beer, listens to John play a longing piece on the piano as the distant sounds of a helicopter come over the soundtrack until we are burst into Vietnam, and the second act.

It is the Vietnam section of the film that caused the original controversies swirling around the film and contains its most famous scenes. But the scenes caused controversy for a wide variety of reasons, some valid, others less so. In Vietnam, Mike, Nick and Steven meet up, somehow, as a village is being bombed. Something happens (it's not clear what but vaguely looks like advancing Vietcong troops) and in the very next scene they are prisoners of war, held in a bamboo cage along the river. Here, they are forced to play Russian roulette for the amusement of their Vietcong captors. Steven is clearly suffering a mental break from all of it while Mike and Nick try to figure out what to do. Steven and Mike are pitted against each other and Steven gets the bullet in the chamber but the gun slips and he only grazes the top of his head. Both are returned to the cage and Mike tells Nick that the two of them will play next and he will get them out by demanding more bullets in the chamber, which he does and they do.

This is probably the single most famous scene in the whole film and one that worked exceedingly well for me as a young teenager taking in the horrifying, gritty brutality of it all. Seeing it again 25 years later the scene wasn't as nearly as gripping as I had remembered. Oh, it's done well and is quite gripping at times but not for the reasons I remembered. What stood out for me this time was not the actual scenes of Russian roulette but the scenes of Steven gasping for air in a state of shock every time he hears the revolver's hammer come down. John Savage is so extraordinary in the scene that it's baffling how he escaped nomination for his performance. Christopher Walken won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor that year for his performance as Nick, and while he is excellent, I felt John Savage did something quite amazing with his very small part.

Later in the second act, after their escape, Nick is separated from Mike and Steven who make their way back home, although Steven loses his legs and won't leave the Veteran's hospital in Pittsburgh. Nick is lured in by a French man, a remnant of Vietnam's colonial period, who promises him riches playing Russian roulette. He never returns home.


The third act finds Mike back home, dealing with the loss of Nick and heartbreak of Steven. He turns to Linda for solace and the two form a bond as a means of keeping Nick alive between them. The third act has some good moments, particularly with the weaselly Stan getting his comeuppance by an angry Mike, sick of Stan's bullshit bravado in the face of what he's experienced. John Cazale, once again and for the last time in his acting career, excels at the role and reminds us how much the cinema lost when John Cazale succumbed to cancer at the all too young age of 42. The third act stumbles when Mike decides to go back for Nick as Saigon falls. Here, and for inexplicable reasons, Cimino inserts stock footage from the fall into the actual footage he's shot. It's inexplicable because the actual footage shot by Cimino is amazing and jarringly disrupted by news footage so far from visually matching the film's footage as to be almost comical.

To add to the faults of the third act, Mike's visit to find Nick is too pat. It's so easy and happens so quickly the viewer cannot help but ask, "Why didn't he just do this before he left?" That's a valid question because before he leaves Vietnam the first time he sees Nick and it's clear that Nick is unresponsive to him and going awol. And yet, nothing happens. Nonetheless, Mike does go back, finds him easily and challenges him to a game of Russian roulette, where Nick has been playing professionally for six years without getting a bullet in the chamber once. The viewer would be a fool to bet against that happening now that Mike has shown up.

And, of course, it does happen. It happens just as there is some sign that Nick might realize who Mike is. Afterwards, Mike returns home with his body, we watch the funeral and at John's bar, everyone joins in an impromptu singing of God Bless America as the film closes.

What surprised me more than anything this time around was how unmoving was the ending. The character of Nick is so removed from the film by the time we witness his suicide that he seems little different than any of the extras we have watched shoot themselves. Now, I don't know, however, if that is a fault of the film or not. Here's what I mean: When we see Nick wander off with the French man late in the second act we already know he's gone so by the time we see him again, we've adjusted to the loss. Imagine losing a friend at the height of your friendship with them. It would be devastating. Now imagine that same friendship, only this time you gradually grow apart, move apart, lose contact and then, years later learn of their death. The blow is now considerably cushioned and easier to take. And I think, or at least believe it's possible, that that's the intention of the film. If we view Nick as the POW/MIA, we see him as a loss already accounted for. When he physically dies, it's more of a relief than anything else.

The Deer Hunter has conflicts in its storytelling styles but in one area, cinematography, it excels from the first frame to the last. It was photographed by Vilmos Zsigmond and it's a beautiful piece of work. Zsigmond has the task of doing intimate interiors (the bar, Linda's trailer), claustrophobic interiors (the bamboo cage, the Russian roulette den), menacing exteriors (the journey up the river, the shots of the refugees fleeing), gorgeous exteriors (the mountains of Pennsylvania), expansive interiors (the Cathedral wedding) and even both interior and exteriors at once (the car scenes in the mountains). The fact that a single cinematographer handled that many different settings with the absolute majesty that Zsigmond achieves is an extraordinary feat, and while I realize it is cinematic blasphemy to write the words I am about to write, I think it deserved the Oscar more (just a tiny bit more) than the also extraordinary work of Néstor Almendros for Days of Heaven, which did win.


Another area of supreme achievement for The Deer Hunter is in its performances. There's not a bad one in the lot, with even one-time actor Chuck Aspegren doing a fine job with his limited role. While De Niro certainly deserved his nomination for Best Actor, its a film of supporting performances and picking just one, Christopher Walken, from the group left a lot of fine work unrecognized. There's the aforementioned John Savage, about as good as he's ever been, and John Cazale, also doing great work and Meryl Streep, unfamiliar to most audiences at the time, turning in an excellent performance as Linda. But George Dzundza, an actor everyone knows but far too few appreciate, turns in a performance at least the equal of everyone involved. In fact, it's his performance that extracts the most emotion as his character seems to wear his feelings on his sleeve. When he silently breaks down in the kitchen of his bar in the final scene, it has a power most of the finale is lacking.

Finally, the music is superb. Stanley Myers' beautiful composition Cavatina is played evocatively by guitarist John Williams and used throughout the film to great effect.

Despite these good points, in the end, The Deer Hunter is hopelessly conflicted with how it wants to tell its story. It wants Robert Altman's stream of consciousness but also the formal drama of an old-school Hollywood war film. It wants gritty realism but infuses it with obvious metaphor and wooden exposition. Intentionally or not, it ends up as conflicted as the war itself. It's not a bad experience, though. I walked away from my fresh viewing with an appreciation for Cimino and Zsigmond's gift for framing and enjoyed that fact that movie did not attempt to answer any questions the world might have about Vietnam but asked a few for the characters, and made sure they were questions they couldn't answer. I'd have to say my experience was a good one but not as good as I'd hoped.

But that's my opinion of the film as it is, as a story separate from our actual experiences with Vietnam. The film's message, or construed one as it may be, was the focus of intense controversy at the time of its release, one that got to the heart of much of the debate about America's involvement in Vietnam. I made it a point, after deciding to watch the film again, to read not a word about the controversy until after I viewed it. I remembered some things, like Jane Fonda and husband Tom Hayden yelling, "The Deer Hunter is a lie!" at the Oscars, but not much else. When I finished processing the movie I started to read up on the criticisms, most of them having to do with the Vietnam sequences. As I said earlier, some seem valid, others less so.

The primary criticism was that the portrayal of the Viet Cong captors, as well as the Vietnamese roulette gamblers, was racist and one-sided. The secondary criticism, and one that you'll find repeated in one review after another, was that there was no documentation of Russian roulette ever being forced on POWs. The secondary criticism goes hand in hand with the first. That is, by inventing such a cruel device to portray the captors and free-market gamblers of Vietnam, they are caricatured as animals beyond redemption. The implication seems to be that there was plenty of horrific behavior on the part of the Viet Cong to show without having to make something up. One need but read up on the activities at the Hoa Lo Prison (The Hanoi Hilton) to know this to be true. So by devising the roulette game, the film was able to implicate both the North and the South Vietnamese in the cruelty, since both seem intoxicated by it.


In his defense of this criticism, on the commentary soundtrack of the DVD, Cimino states that the film is surrealistic and not intended to be "about Vietnam" any more than Apocalypse Now was or The Bridge on the River Kwai was about World War II. It is, he says, entirely fictional and the captors and citizen gamblers are but metaphors for a bigger picture (well, obviously - everything's a metaphor in the movie).

I buy into Cimino's view more. The film is, as stated several times so far up to and including the preceding sentence, clearly metaphorical. While it employs realism in its scenes it is not meant to be taken as a literal portrayal of events in Vietnam, at least not to my eyes. This is, you will recall, one of my problems with the film, the fact that it can't stick with the voyeuristic realism long enough to forget all the metaphor and allegory. The fact that this is a problem for me also means, by definition, that I don't believe Cimino is trying to bullshit his way out of this because it is all so clearly surrealistic. There are far too many contrived situations in this film (not least among them the fact that three friends from the same town all somehow end up in the same bamboo cage half a world away) to take is seriously as intentionally realistic and not metaphorically stylistic.

Of course, the criticism goes, one can be metaphorical and still include some decent Vietnamese characters. That's true as well but if they are not important to the story I'm not sure where to put them. In Brian De Palma's Casualties of War, the focus is on the crime committed by United States soldiers in Vietnam and the one soldier who stands up to them. It is necessary to the story to show the sole important Vietnamese character, that of the abducted raped captive, as humanistic and victimized. This does not mean De Palma was racist in his portrayal of American soldiers and glorifying in his portrayal of Vietnamese women as suffering angels. No, it meant he was showing the characters he needed to show to tell his story the way he needed to tell it.

Still, one does chafe at the gambling scenes in the village where Christopher Walken becomes a roulette star. The idea of people betting on other people like so many spins of a roulette wheel seems hard to take or, at least, hard to fathom that kind of inhuman cruelty for the sake of gambling. Not only that, but how soon is your business going to end? I mean, how many possible people can you drug up enough, and fast enough, to keep a lucrative suicide game going? Business-wise, it's idiotic and nonsensical.


So where does that leave us? Well, several decades removed from the original controversy, it's hard to see what all the fuss was about. Eight years later, Oliver Stone took metaphorical/allegorical Vietnam storytelling to ridiculous heights with his badly dated Platoon. With its simple-minded moralizing (Old America: Bad. New America: Good.) and laughably one-dimensional symbolic stand-ins for characters, it's hard to believe it didn't get raked over the coals far worse than The Deer Hunter ever was. But by 1986 America had already forgotten the Vietnamese anyway (they're not even a minor subplot in Platoon) and was focused on how hard it was for all of us so Platoon was aces in their book.

The Deer Hunter had to happen when it did. While there were other Vietnam movies that very year, and the year before, including The Boys in Company C, Go Tell the Spartans and Coming Home, America needed a mad, grand over-the-top opera like The Deer Hunter to get the conversation rolling. It may not be the best Vietnam movie out there (is there, in fact, a best one?) but its place as the one that really got Hollywood finally opening up to the idea of examining Vietnam, something The Green Berets failed to do nine years earlier, is an honored place and there are a lot worse movies that could hold it. That's pretty faint praise, admittedly, but it's sincere. And with all its faults, so is The Deer Hunter.