I was umm-ing and ahh-ing about going to see this at my local cinema. It was a one-off showing of the 4K Blu ray print and the chance of seeing this on the big screen was too much of a rare occurrence to knock back. The reason for my reticence was that when I had previously seen the film for the first time (in about 1993) I had loved it but the actual subject matter was so traumatising and shocking. It’s not often that I experience this when it comes to film and so I was erm, keen to see if this film was just as raw as it had been all of those years ago.
And the simple answer is yes. It still packs one hell of a punch with it’s unblinking view of how vile war really is.
But before the war scenes we are presented with the slowww build-up in the small town of Clairton, Pennsylvania. Some critics have said that there is too much emphasis on this section of the film but I think it’s necessary to get under the skin of the characters and fully experience their lives. This isn’t some romanticised vision of American life especially as we see Meryl Streep’s character Linda having to endure a physically abusive father. We also see that the group of guys who constitute the main characters within the film argue, bicker and fight as well as being part of a tight pack of friends and drinking buddies.
Contrast this section of the film with the all too sudden Vietnam sequences and you’ll see that whereas the Pennsylvania sequences feel like every minute detail is being recorded, the Viet Cong second act zips by very quickly indeed. One second we see the Vietnamese troops approaching the next we see the main characters in a bamboo cage. The pace of the film directly depicts the events being depicted- the slowness of small-town life as opposed to the surreal rush of the unfathomable events taking place in Vietnam.
The film also brilliantly depicts Post Traumatic Stress Disorder which had very rarely been tackled in a war film before this. Men had stereotypically been depicted in this genre as tough, unrealistically resilient and untouched by the atrocities of war. Witness Nick’s meltdown in the sanatorium and Michael’s emotional and overwhelming return to his hometown after the horror that he’s witnessed and been forced to participate in.
The film also perceptively depicts how destructive the mind can be when such trauma has been experienced. It’s no accident that Nick stumbles into a Russian Roulette gambling ring, just as it’s no accident that Michael is already in the audience there watching this ghoulish spectacle.
The Deer Hunter proved to be very controversial when it was originally released. There were criticisms that the film was a distortion of the truth as it was felt by some to be so one-sided and so relentlessly pro-American. I don’t really have a problem with the film’s narrative as it doesn’t suggest that the American troops in this war weren’t committing atrocities of their own. A viewer would have to be pretty naive to think that all American soldiers were good and all Vietnamese bad.
There was also criticism regarding the Russian Roulette scenes with critics saying that this never actually happened during the Vietnam War (although director Cimino said that he had read accounts of this being utilised by the Vietnamese). It really doesn’t matter either way- these scenes act as a very powerful metaphor for the horrors of war.
I love the fact that Jane Fonda criticised the film and referred to the film’s protestors as ‘friends’ but then admitted that she hadn’t actually seen the film. Some things never change- protestors are going to criticise a film on what they’ve heard about it rather than seeing the film firsthand and then forming an opinion on the events depicted therein.
The scenes between Robert De Niro and Meryl Streep stand out in a film that contains uniformly brilliant performances. You get the idea that you’re privileged to be witnessing arguably the best actor and actress of their generation at the peak of their game and the results crackle with electricity.
The scene in which the characters sing ‘God Bless America’ is masterful as it will be interpreted by the audience according to their political beliefs and if they thought the Vietnam War was justifiable or not. Is this scene ironic, sarcastic or totally sincere?
A tough watch but thats to be expected because of the subject matter. A must see film for any self-respecting fan of cinema.
5 out of 5