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Not the masterpiece it once seemed, but not the propaganda its detractors claim either
on 10 November 2007
For all the naturalism of the presentation, the plot of The Deer Hunter is melodrama and metaphor, sometimes effective, often contrived, and seen today it's hard to get over how the main characters seem far too old to be going to Vietnam. Indeed, the film itself seems so much less impressive than Heaven's Gate today that it's surprising that this is the one the critics feted. Not that it's as bad as the revisionism that subsequently hit it would have you believe, but a lot of its original power has been diluted by the better films about Vietnam that would follow it. There's definitely a feeling of avoiding saying anything about Vietnam: this could almost be any war, from Korea to WW2, leaving much of the last act a 70s Best Years of Our Lives.
The biggest revelation watching it again is how good Robert de Niro used to be, leaving you with the suspicion that the pod people got him and replaced him with a lifeless hack who gets his assistants to phone in his performances while he's down at the bank cashing the checks these days. It's a surprise to see how engaging and credible an actor he once was. Unlike his later work, he seems less selfish here and able (in the first half at least) to connect with the other actors in the ensemble rather than constantly standing apart, which makes the character's feelings of disconnection with his old life far more effective in the latter part of the movie. Similarly, Meryl Streep is surprisingly natural in an early performance before everything became a veritable computer program of meticulously planned mannerisms and inflections that bore increasingly little relation to human behavior, while Christopher Walken didn't have the baggage that would increasingly prevent him from playing regular guys onscreen.
Scary anecdote from the DVD interview on the 2-disc set with a now very scary looking Michael Cimino (imagine a blonde Truman Capote in sunglasses playing an alien on Dr Who and you're not even close): for the scene where De Niro holds a gun to John Cazale's head and pulls the trigger, De Niro asked for a real bullet to be put in the chamber - and Cazale agreed!