The Deer Hunter
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The Deer Hunter

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Although many consider the art of the motion picture to be primarily for entertainment, some films transcend this function and become a pivotal part of our culture. Back in the early seventies the most important issue of the day was the war in Viet Nam. As a man who was of draft age in the early seventies I can say that barely a moment of time would pass when thoughts of this war did not enter our minds. In 1978 while the physical and emotional wounds of this war where still fresh Michael Cimino released the seminal film about Viet Nam, The Deer Hunter. Some have stated that this film is overrated, but for those of us that lived through this conflict it has the punch of a mortal shell in the chest. The Deer Hunter is a play staged in three acts; before Viet Nam, Viet Nam and the aftermath of war. The time span covered is roughly eight years beginning in 1968, a brief span as time goes but for the people affected it was a life time. Clairtown Pennsylvania is a typical still mill town, men work at the same jobs as did their fathers and grandfathers. The men work amidst the sparks, flames and unbearable heat of molten metal. In their off hours they drink, fall in love and hunt. Michael Vronsky (Robert De Niro) is the undisputed leader of his group of friends. He needs to be in control whether on the job or while leading his friends on a deer hunt. Nick (Christopher Walken) will take a bet on just about anything. Steven (John Savage) is the sensitive one of the group. As the first act begins he is about to marry Angela (Rutanya Alda) who is wearing white despite the fact that she is already pregnant. The wedding details the rituals that both men and women have for an occasion such as this. The women primp and ready the bride while the men joke about the doom of marriage. What looms over the Russian Orthodox is the knowledge that the group of friends will soon be shipping off to Viet Nam, leaving this familiar world behind. The second act moves the action to the war. The three friends are captured by the Viet Con and placed in a brutal prisoner of war camp. There, Michael faces the one shot philosophy he held to as a hunter taken to the ultimate extreme, the guards force the men to play Russian roulette, betting gleefully on the outcome. During one game Michael turns the gun to his captors, kills them and manages to escape. In the third act we are witness to the affect that the war had not only on the men that lived through it but also on those that stayed behind. This is by far the most emotional of the acts, the men where forever changed by their experience, although back in their home town they are never quite home. In the end Michael finds himself looking down his rife scope at a deer, he hesitates, no longer able to take a life.

This film meanders at times; after all it does clock in over three hours in length. While many take this as a negative this story could not have been told in a shorter film. Life back then was often aimless, wandering and the film captures this perfectly. Another fault some find with the film is there are no documented cases of Viet Nam prisoners of war being forced to play Russian roulette. While not historically accurate, it is a perfect metaphor for the senselessness of the killing, the random nature of death in war. The men in this film are typical of those that are second and third generation immigrants growing up in a small, one employment town. They are patriotic, they where instilled with a love for this country by parents and grandparents that saw this nation as the land of the American Dream. Some say it is an anti-war film it is not overtly so but upon seeing any presentation of the inhumanity of war few would be pro war. By looking at the lives of these people and how the war affected them the film gives a lasting emotional impact that is as relevant today as it was all those years ago.

The casting of this film is a movie loverís dream; it provides some of the best performances by the elite of American actors. Robert De Niro is at his best here, going through one of the most difficult character arcs he has ever presented. De Niro breaths life into Michael like no other actor could. We see in Michael a man that at the start was self assured, a born leader in his small town, one that thought he had life figured out. In the war he is faced with the unimaginable, aspects of the human condition he never knew existed. Even though he was hailed as a hero upon his return in his Green Beret uniform, he came back uncertain of how he fit in. Christopher Walken is a quirky actor that always gives his best. He plays Nick with humanity, allowing the audience to immediately bond emotionally with his character. The female lead, Meryl Streep, plays Linda, Nickís girlfriend. She is emotionally and physically abused by her alcoholic father, unable to even imagine a better life.

Writer/director Michael Cimino is a fantastic story teller. He doesnít rush the audience into his emotionally charged tale. He gives us the time we require to become emotionally invested in the characters. He well earned his Oscars for this film. The cinematography in this work is not short of incredible. Each scene is painted with great care pulling us into this world. The film was made entirely on location, Cimino preferred realism instead of Hollywood magic. Cimino is a director with a grand vision who makes his own rules to bring the story to the screen. Although slow to start this film is a sweeping story of everyday people that will touch all those that watch. Even though this is not the easiest movie to watch Ciminoís talent will keep you riveted in your seat. Apparently, the studio wanted to release a shorter version but Cimino stuck to his guns and held out for his full vision. This film holds up very well against the test of time.

Universal is revisiting some of there previously released films and thankfully, this one is part of the latest batch. The picture is stunning; the anamorphic 2.35:1 video is wonderfully mastered. There are no discernable artifacts or flaws. The color balance is true to the original negatives as far as I could tell. The Dolby two channel stereo has a good audio range although somewhat clipped on the lower frequencies. The balance between the channels is very good and natural. The extras are what really set this release apart from the previous release. There is a feature length commentary with cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond who goes into detail about how the scenes where composed. Also included is the Academy Award acceptance speech for best picture, a novel idea and well worth having. Rounding things out are some deleted and extended scenes, easy to see why they didnít make the final cut and demonstrating how well edited this film is, and the theatrical trailer. This is a ground breaking film that needs to be part of any serious collection.

Posted 9/8/05

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