The Deer Hunter

AFI Rank: #79
Year Released: 1978
Director: Michael Cimino
Actors: Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, John Cazale, John Savage, Meryl Streep

The Deer Hunter absolutely deserves its #79 spot on the AFI top 100 and I'm surprised it's not even higher. The actors are simply amazing. In every scene, you see the tiny touches they put onto it. Meryl Streep is in her first role ever, and she is spectacular. In real life she was deeply in love with John Cazale, i.e. Fredo from the Godfather series. And in real life, John was dying from bone cancer. They even filmed his scenes first because they knew he wouldn't survive until the end of the film. He didn't. But Meryl was there by his side every second, and John's short 5-film career ended up with him earning high awards for every single film. He was that spectacular.

And he's not even the main star. De Niro and Walken simply astound in their characters. De Niro is the dependable one - and also the violent drunk. He's the one the others hold back in the bar - but out in the mountains, he's the one who can be absolutely trusted. In every scene where there's trouble, De Niro steps forward and hauls everyone else to safety. He is the knight in shining armor.

The introduction to the characters is spellbinding. They are steelworkers in a violent, flame-filled factory. OSHA would have a fit about this. But this dirt-poor environment is just an introduction to what they will have to endure in Vietnam. This isn't about college-high-ethics people in Platoon "doing the right thing". This is about Russian-Americans who have little else, still caring with all their heart for their country. Savage adores his girlfriend so much, even though she's pregnant by another man, that he is eager to marry her despite the strong anger of his mother. I love the Orthodox wedding scene. I grew up Ukrainian and the songs in the service, the holding-the-crowns over the heads of the bride and groom, the dancing at the wedding, all of it is so familiar and wonderful.

And it's even more than that. There's all the tiny touches. The Vietnam vet who has come back and who has been thoroughly jaded by his experiences - and the men about to go off to war don't understand his disillusionment. The way De Niro leaves the room when Streep comes in, because he desires her and at the same time is honor-bound to let her be with his best friend Walken. The way, at the wedding, that he stands gazing at her - and she continually looks back at him. She wants to be with Walken, but her heart strongly draws her to De Niro.

Then comes the war and the indescribeable traumas. Yes there's been Platoon and Saving Private Ryan and so much more. We have seen what men and women go through in war. I still don't know if any movie can ever capture just how much it destroys the soul. The Deer Hunter does the best that any movie can in showing how much the psyche is shattered, how all that came before no longer makes sense. Walken can't call home. Savage doesn't want to go home. De Niro can't stop the cab to attend his "welcome home" party. The others just won't understand. Now all of them know what that vet in the bar felt.

It is amazing that this is Streep's first ever film. She has such power here. It is heart-wrenching that Cazale died during filming and never saw this finished. He was an amazing actor and he was taken from us too soon. The message here is timeless and can be applied to men and women returning from all wars, in all time frames. From the Roman Empire to Iraq and Afghanistan, what people experience in war is far beyond what civilians can understand. And I think civilians should be respectful - and appreciative - of that sacrifice.

Highly recommended. This is a movie that touches me deeply every time I see it.

One minor note, since I am watching through the AFI top 100 to see how each one does on the Bechdel test. There are a wealth of strong female characters here. Streep of course stands out powerfully, but there are many others as well. Even so, there is no time at all that any woman talks to any other woman, except when a few Russian grandmothers are talking with each other in Russian about the wedding cake. It's sad that even in a quite long movie, with powerful characters, that we still don't even have one single conversation between women. It demonstrates how much every single movie out there tends to be about all men, only men, and focused on men. That is an enormous shame, with the women here being such incredible actors.

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AFI Top 100 Film Listing
Male vs Female Actors in the AFI Top 100
The Bechdel Test in the AFI Top 100