Judge Joe Armenio goes double-dipping with Michael Cimino's Vietnam epic.
"How does it feel to be shot?"
Like it or not, The Deer Hunter is a film that aims high, and anyone who claims a knowledge of the history of American film, or of American culture in general, needs to deal with it at some point. Michael Cimino's 1978 epic was the first serious attempt to grapple cinematically with the recently-ended Vietnam War (it took Francis Ford Coppola another year to finish Apocalypse Now), and was exalted by some as profoundly humanist even as it was denounced by others as fatally evasive and racist. I think the denunciations had a point; The Deer Hunter is an expertly staged film whose heavy-handed, intellectually unsubtle treatment of its themes and thoughtless portrayal of the Vietnamese make it not only politically troubling but also a second-rate work of art. Universal has released the film as part of its ritzy-sounding "Legacy" series. The upshot of the "Legacy" treatment here is that the film is presented with a bland and disappointing commentary track, and a second disc of extras which runs for a grand total of 20 minutes.
Facts of the Case
In three acts, The Deer Hunter explores the lives of three steel-working Russian-Americans in Western Pennsylvania before, during, and after their service in Vietnam. Anchored by a frolicsome wedding sequence clearly modeled on the "white ethnic" pageantry of Coppola's The Godfather, Act One establishes the camaraderie between Michael (Robert DeNiro, The Godfather Part II), Nick (Christopher Walken, The King of New York), and the groom, Steven (John Savage, Salvador), who are heading off to war shortly after the nuptials. In Act Two, set in a hellish simulacrum of Vietnam, the three are coincidentally reunited when captured by the enemy and forced to play Russian roulette for the amusement of Vietnamese captors. In Act Three, one man returns home physically intact but emotionally damaged, another loses his legs and his place in the world, and the other advances further into Cimino's heart of darkness.
The scenes set in the men's hometown of Clairton, Pa., were shot on several locations in Ohio and Western Pennsylvania; the fearsome steel mill and awesome Orthodox church are both in Cleveland. They're shot expertly by Vilmos Zsigmond and create a powerfully authentic atmosphere. However, I've always found these sequences strained in their attempt to portray the film's protagonists as vulgar, passionate, golden-hearted working-class heroes, especially compared to Coppola's effortless treatment of similar material in The Godfather. The interactions between Michael, Steven, Nick, and their buddies too often come off as generically and tiresomely boisterous; their lines of dialogue sound like the efforts of actors straining to improvise, rather than something fluid and spontaneous. The storytelling is not that great, either: foreshadowing is laid on with a trowel (the disillusioned soldier at the wedding reception, the bride's toast) and the hunting sequences, shot in Washington's Cascade Mountains, are intended to be majestic but seem merely grandiose (Stanley Myers' music doesn't help).
The Russian roulette scenes set in Vietnam are what most viewers remember about this film, and they are staged with a rare tension. Just about anyone watching the film for the first time will find them a draining experience, and I say that with admiration; Russian roulette is such an apt metaphor for the randomness and horror of war that I'm surprised it hasn't been seized on as a dramatic device many times before. Unfortunately, the Vietnamese are portrayed here as chattering, menacing forces of nature, barely human. Here and in the film's final sequence, set during the fall of Saigon, Zsigmond films Vietnam as a place of flames, chaos, and violence; the hellish imagery is powerfully captured, but the problem is that Vietnam isn't hell. It's a place on earth, just like Western Pennsylvania. Defenders of the film have always explained this failure by suggesting that the film isn't about the Vietnam War as a historical event, but about the universal experience of war. But isn't the refusal to confront the war in its context, or to humanize the Vietnamese, in itself a political statement? In any event, the subjects that filmmakers choose for their work seem to me fair game for criticism, and The Deer Hunter would be a braver and richer film if it had dared to tackle the nature of American involvement in Southeast Asia (something that Apocalypse Now does do, although Coppola's film has its own set of problems).
Michael is clearly the moral center of The Deer Hunter's universe, a strong, sad, brave hero, and his uneasy return to Pennsylvania is the focus of Act Three. He starts an awkward romance with Linda (Meryl Streep, Kramer Vs. Kramer), Nick's girlfriend, while Nick remains AWOL, and attempts to connect with Steven, who would rather languish and play bingo in a VA hospital than rejoin his wife and rest of the world ("I don't fit," he laments; Savage's performance is movingly vulnerable throughout). Ultimately, Michael returns to Saigon to rescue Nick, who has been broken by his POW experience and has succumbed to the suicidal impulse to play Russian roulette for the benefit of Vietnamese gamblers. He is recruited for this task by a rather shady French figure who (again, unsubtly) represents the slick and corrupt colonial European forces who have lured the robust and simple-hearted Americans to the dark side of the world. The reunion between Michael and Nick provides the film with its climax, which has often been noted for its power, although it strikes me that Nick's descent makes more allegorical than psychological sense; however damaged he's been by his experience, how likely is it that he'd have such trouble even recognizing his friend? Steven's ordeal seems much more movingly realistic, Nick's more ham-handedly "dramatic" and, in the end, character study is tossed aside for melodrama.
The good news about Universal's "Legacy Series" DVD is that it looks great. Zsigmond 's cinematography is the star of this show, his somber palette of greys, browns, and blacks capturing the muddy, cloudy, smoky density of a mill town, and the transfer is beautiful. The extras, though, leave a lot to be desired. The Deer Hunter is the sort of film, made by skilled filmmakers in a rich and controversial cultural context, that could easily inspire a great commentary track, but unfortunately, this isn't it. Zsigmond is a fine cameraman, but his comments on camera setups and his philosophy of cinematography aren't enough to carry a three-hour commentary, and he has little to say about anything else. The track is structured as an interview with "film journalist" Bob Fisher, who is kind of a clown; at first I thought he was asking Zsigmond about actor John Cazale (who plays a friend of the protagonists named Stan) merely to prompt the cameraman into sharing his recollections, but it soon becomes clear that Fisher doesn't seem to know who Cazale is; shouldn't a "film journalist" have some acquaintance with the guy who played Fredo Corleone? And Fisher's ignorance extends beyond movies: at one point he asks Zsigmond if a particular scene was shot "in Pittsburgh, or Pennsylvania." Huh? Fisher's own comments on the movie are uniformly bland and substanceless, and only once does either man bring up the film's political implications (near the end, Zsigmond defends it as a vindication of the American soldier, vilified by those who opposed the war).
Disc Two is one of the sorriest excuses for a platter of extras I've ever seen; we get 17 minutes of "deleted and extended scenes," most of which consist of extensions of the first Russian roulette sequence. We get several minutes of John Savage freaking out, and several more of De Niro acting like a psycho, baiting his Vietnamese captors. Most of this material was cut for good reasons. De Niro's theatrics in the deleted scenes are way out of character; Michael is an intense but contained and rational man, and his actions in the Russian roulette scenes of the released film ring powerfully true: angry, with a fierce defiance, but coherent and focused on the ultimate goal of escape. I suspect that De Niro, a thoughtful and disciplined actor, had no intention of using this footage and was only trying to build to the pitch of intensity necessary for the scene. If anything, it's an interesting glimpse at De Niro's methods. Then we have the original trailer, a few screens of production notes, and that's all. I can't imagine any fan of the film being satisfied with this, and it's pretty cynical of Universal to refer to this is a "2-Disc Special Edition" (and price it accordingly) when the contents of the second disc could have fit onto the first.
I'm not a big fan of The Deer Hunter, but it's an important film, and it deserves better than this. At least the film itself looks good. And The Deer Hunter is a famous enough bit of cinema that the eventual triple-dip seems inevitable; perhaps in 2008 for the 30th anniversary (if humankind and DVDs have survived that long), fans can look forward to that perhaps less shoddy release.
This bears about as much resemblance to a "Special Edition" as I do to [insert name of handsome leading man here]. And Bob Fisher is ordered to stay three miles away from any commentary track.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary with Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond and Film Journalist Bob Fisher
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