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Cimino's career peak
by Asa Butcher
2009-02-17 10:16:34
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The Deer Hunter
Directed by Michael Cimino
1978, EMI Films/Universal Pictures

If a film starring Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken and Meryl Streep was released today expectations among movie fans and critics would be astronomical, but thirty years ago, when they did all star together in The Deer Hunter, two of the names were barely known. However, thanks to their incredible performances, Streep and Walken were both nominated for the first Academy Award of their careers, with the latter actually winning, launching them both on to the A-List with Robert De Niro.

February 2009 not only marks the 30th anniversary of the film's UK release, but two other significant cinematic landmarks that should be acknowledged and, coincidentally, are all connected through one man. The month also marks the 70th birthday of the film's director Michael Cimino, who is also the man responsible for bankrupting United Artists that also celebrates its 90th anniversary this month... what a month!

Before Michael Cimino single-handedly destroyed United Artists with 1980's Heaven's Gate, he was the hottest piece of property in Hollywood following the release and financial/critical success of The Deer Hunter. Having only directed one film before - 1974's Thunderbolt and Lightfoot starring Clint Eastwood and Jeff Bridges - I doubt that expectations were too high for the writer, director and producer of The Deer Hunter, but it was a benchmark Cimino was never going to reach again.

The Deer Hunter is not a Vietnam movie and it isn't a war movie; it is an emotionally haunting film that examines the relationships between friends and the effects that war can inflict. As one reviewer stated: No, this is not the best film about the Vietnam War; it's hardly about Vietnam at all… It could be any war, with any combatants… This is one of the very few post-war Hollywood films that shows a sincere reverence for the lives of small town Americans.

The small town is the steel mill town of Clairton, Pennsylvania, where Michael (Robert De Niro), Steven (John Savage) and Nick (Christopher Walken) have lived and worked all their lives. The first third of the film follows the trio as they hang out in the local bar, go hunting and prepare to go to Vietnam. The second third of the film shows their time in Vietnam, but this is far from Platoon or Full Metal Jacket because the trio are captured by the Viet Cong and are forced to play Russian Roulette. The final third of the film returns to Clairton, but is in stark contrast to the happy-go-lucky first third before gutting you at the finale.

A precursor to so-many of today's Vietnam films, The Deer Hunter painfully reveals the consequences of war and misplaced patriotism, while examining the issues such as drug abuse, suicide, infidelity and mental illness. One of the most powerful scenes has Michael alone in a motel room in order to avoid the homecoming party organised by his friends. He breaks down in tears, alone in the dark and looking at the steel mill and a life to which he can never return… yet, this is just one of many I could list.

Of course, the Russian Roulette scenes are electric, helped by the authentic slapping that was said to have severely agitated the actors, plus the unconfirmed rumour that a live round was in the chamber to help "heighten" the realism! During these scenes De Niro is simply awesome, bringing a pinch of Travis Bickle to the character of Michael, with bizarre responses like "This is this!" and battling the Vietnam-born demons that will probably haunt him for the rest of his life.

This certainly was an actor's film, with a young Meryl Streep, who I normally can't stand and couldn't in this either, giving a respectable performance - okay, she got an Oscar nomination - and a sleazy John Cazale in his last film also bringing further credit to himself. Christopher Walken was almost on the same level as De Niro, but he didn't quite have as much screen time, but it was strange not seeing Walken playing the psycho for which he has become so closely associated.

It would be remiss of me not to mention the soundtrack, especially Stanley Myers' "Cavatina" that is among the best cinematic instrumentals of the 1970s, and also the technical brilliance of the award-winning editor Peter Zinner, who also co-edited The Godfather, and nominated cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, who also worked on Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It is thanks, in part, to their abilities that The Deer Hunter was crafted into the vision that Michael Cimino wanted and managed to achieve… and on budget, for once in his career.

There is a sense of relief as I come to the final paragraph of this review because it has taken me a few days and a number of failed attempts to write this because The Deer Hunter left me feeling numb and unsure whether I actually enjoyed it. I must have been thoroughly absorbed in the plot since the three-hour running time flew by and for me to feel this way means that I was definitely emotionally connected to the characters, which suggests that it was a great film, worthy of being the AFI's 53rd Greatest Movie of All Time and 1979 Best Picture winner, but not one that I'll be watching again anytime soon.

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