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The Deer Hunter: Legacy Series

When the first wave of serious dramas about the Vietnam War hit theaters in 1978, Michael Cimino's epic The Deer Hunter was the surprise hit of the lot, performing exceedingly well at the box office for a three-hour downer, and also picking up the Oscar for Best Picture the next year. While his contemporaries opted to focus singularly on either the battlefront (The Boys in Company C, Apocalypse Now) or the emotional aftermath of the controversial Southeast Asian conflict (fellow 1978 Oscar-winner Coming Home), Cimino — with only one previous directorial credit under his belt, 1974's Thunderbolt and Lightfoot — boldly attempted to cover the entire spectrum, telling the story of a group of Clairton, Penn., steel workers from days before their enlistment, through their hellish experience as POWs, and their struggle to cope with injury and trauma following the war's messy conclusion. As such, The Deer Hunter is a movie of three distinct, roughly hour-long parts, the best of which, by far, is the first, as serious Michael (Robert De Niro) and easy-going Nick (Christopher Walken) wildly celebrate the marriage of their tightly wound friend Steven (John Savage) the day before the three of them join the U.S. Army for service in Vietnam. While Steven is allowed a one-night honeymoon, Michael and Nick take the rest of their rambunctious, hard-drinking buddies (John Cazale, George Dzundza, Chuck Aspegren) on a farewell hunting trip, where Michael regains his focus and the no-nonsense attitude that has made him a beacon of responsibility in his circle of friends.

In The Deer Hunter, Michael Cimino takes the objective style and intimate texture of docudrama and splashes them across cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond's beautiful, epic canvas. With brilliant, naturalistic performers (including Meryl Streep as Walken's girlfriend, Linda) improvising at their best, and the flavorful backdrop of a small-town, industrial, Russian Orthodox immigrant community, the film is, in parts, the most moving and effective of cinematic slices-of-life. Sadly, the second part of the picture (and, thankfully, the shortest), as Michael, Nick, and Steven endure a nightmarish Vietnam experience, is nearly incoherent. The movie's intense signature scenes — POWs forced to compete in deadly games of Russian roulette — leave a powerful emotional imprint that compensates for the surprisingly inept storytelling immediately surrounding them. The Deer Hunter gets partially back on track for the final hour as Michael returns home and experiences difficulty assimilating back into a quiet, blue-collar life, despite the distraught Linda's best efforts to comfort him. When Michael feels compelled to find Steven and Nick and bring them back to Clairton, the results are, respectively, heart-wrenching and ham-fisted. Cimino, who served in Vietnam as a medic for a Green Beret unit, nevertheless fails in depicting the Vietnam battlefield experience in anywhere near as riveting and authentic a fashion as he does the quieter, tender, smaller, and far more powerful scenes set in Clairton.

*          *          *

Paradoxically, The Deer Hunter would have been improved, but likely would have been less celebrated, without any scenes set in Vietnam itself — in particular Michael's unfocused, often silly, return to Saigon to fetch the AWOL Nick. The controversial Russian roulette sequences were the shocking catalyst that catapulted the movie into cultural posterity, but the great scenes in the film are so delicately created, captured, and resonant — and De Niro, Walken and Streep are so, so very good — that they effectively obscure its substantial weaknesses. Cimino also ends the movie on just such a high note, leaving a better lasting impression than perhaps the picture deserves. Upon its release, The Deer Hunter came under fire not only for questions about its historical veracity (Cimino has tried deflect criticism of the Russian roulette sequences by proclaiming them "metaphorical"), but also for its refreshingly apolitical point-of-view on the divisive war. Stanley Myers' gorgeous theme "Cavatina" is one of the all-time great pieces of movie music, and the brief hunting scenes are majestically and masterfully shot, with Zsigmond operating in peak form.

Universal presents their two-disc "Legacy Series" edition of The Deer Hunter in a good anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with both Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby 2.0 Surround audio mixes. Zsigmond discusses the movie with journalist Bob Fisher on an uninspired commentary track (Fisher asks Zsigmond challenging questions like, "In this scene, there's a guy on fire. How'd you do that?"). The weak second disc contains only 18 minutes of unnecessary alternate footage, the original (terrible) theatrical trailer, and production notes — as such, the set fails to deliver the quality bonus features included in Warner's 2003 Region Two release, making this far from a definitive edition. Dual-DVD folding digipak.
—Gregory P. Dorr

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