In memory of Michael Cimino, 3 February 1939 - 2 July 2016

Compared to the glut of masterpiece-level films about World War II, American cinema has - perhaps surprisingly - never produced a wholly great and uncompromised movie about the United States' war in Vietnam. Too many psychic scars, maybe; could be that the divisive, angry politics surrounding the war make it harder to reckon with it than the "we're all in this together" good feelings surrounding WWII. What there have been, though, are some unbearably fascinating near-misses; it's as though the unresolved tensions that make an unimpeachably great Vietnam War film impossible have also fueled filmmakers to go overboard with ambition in attempting to somehow contain, in a cinematic prism, the War That Got Away.

To my mind, the most important, interesting, and effective of these films are a cluster of three movies released at the end of the 1970s, all of them steeped in the tradition of the New Hollywood Cinema as it was starting to fold in on itself. The smallest in scale (it takes place entirely within the United States) and thus the most pedestrian, but also the most successful on its own terms is Coming Home, directed by Hal Ashby; by far the most overreaching and exciting in conception and technique is Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now, which spends most of its running time barely hanging together as a movie. That leaves Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter in the Goldilocks spot: it's just crazy enough to capture something of the madness of Vietnam, domesticated enough that it's mostly something concrete that you put your arms around, and on top of that it has a mythic texture - not at all the same as Apocalypse Now's gonzo operatic grandiosity - which makes it feel like a proper American epic. It won the 1978 Best Picture Oscar (pipping Coming Home in that category; overall, it went 4-2 out of the seven categories where the films competed head-to-head*), and that seems pretty much exactly right to me: whether or not The Deer Hunter was the objectively best film of '78, it has an expansive vision that's far too rare, particularly in films that become hits as big as this one unexpectedly became during its 1979 wide release (it was a pioneer in the "Oscar-qualifying run at the tail-end of the calendar year" game), and it has a remarkable, confident approach to carrying that vision off. It is one of the last triumphs of the New Hollywood, working with Apocalypse Now to bring down the curtain on a decade of audacious filmmaking, and a better grand finale for that era, born of the culture-wide disillusion that the war was itself in large part responsible for creating, could hardly be wished for.

The Deer Hunter concerns itself with the residents of a steel town in Pennyslvania with a high Russian-American population, and the effect that it has on the lives of eight individuals, when three men go off to Vietnam to fight. And while it's about a very physically definite place and idiosyncratic culture, there's little doubt from the way Cimino stages scenes and obscures any details that make the town any more particular than An Industrial Town in the Dying Rust Belt (it was played by an assortment of such towns in both Pennsylvania and Ohio) that he intends for us to take The Deer Hunter as a symbolic portrait of Vietnam-era Americana, parallel to the ways in which it is a detailed, highly realistic drama about very specific human lives done in the best New Hollywood fashion.

And as a work of realism it is certainly magnificent, not least thanks to it superlative cinematography by the great master Vilmos Szigmond. He shot the film on highly grainy stock (and then, I am given to believe, amplified the grain in developing the film), giving it a rough, artless quality that contrasts in surprising ways with the film's unexpectedly rich color saturation - '70s films generally, and especially '70s films anywhere close to realism, are typically presented in a cornucopia of muddy hues, but there are times, such as the interior of a Russian Orthodox church, where The Deer Hunter all but hums with color, to say nothing of the omnipresent blue sky and green forests - while insisting on the verisimilitude of the footage. This is less of a conflict than it sounds: the occasional beauty of the footage gives it more life and vigor, situating the movie in a small town that feels more human because it's genuinely nice to look at and be a part of.

The core of the film is a trio of men: Mike Vronsky (Robert De Niro), Steven Pushkov (John Savage), and Nick Chevotarevich (Christopher Walken), all steelworkers, all shipping out to Vietnam at the same time. The movie opens with Steven's marriage to Angela (Rutanya Alda), and spends some time there letting us get to know the characters, including Nick's girlfriend Linda (Meryl Streep), whom Mike is attracted to, and some more of the guys' friends: Stan (John Cazale), Axel (Chuck Aspegren), and John (George Dzundza), who owns the bar that's pretty much the only social site in town. Before leaving the group goes deer hunting one last time, and then it's off to war, where things are pure hell: Steven loses his legs and Nick loses his mind, and Mike ends up returning alone to their hometown to find himself not terribly well-equipped to return to normal life or to help Steven and Nick's loved ones understand what the fuck happened overseas. Eventually, Mike returns to Vietnam to hunt for Nick, and to his sorrow, finds him.

Not all that much plot happens in the film's three-hour running time, which caused major headaches for Universal's executives when they were trying to figure out how to sell the thing. A big sticking point was the wedding sequence at the opening, which in the final cut of the film lasts till the 51-minute mark, which really and truly is ludicrous. Apparently Cimino was quite a brat about getting his way, too (this extended all the way tn post-post-production; there was a whole ordeal about who actually wrote the screenplay, Cimino or Deric Washburn, and Cimino lost with the WGA); as one studies the production history of The Deer Hunter, which is largely a list of all the ways the director tried to outsmart the studio and make exactly the movie he promised that he wouldn't make, it's a lot less surprising that the film's unmitigated success encouraged him to be even more of a brat with his next film, and thus came one of cinema's biggest, most self-indulgent bombs ever, Heaven's Gate. The thing is, just as he was in the case of that much more controversial film, Cimino was completely right. Not, maybe, about everything: I do not know that the third act search for Nick does much for the film at all. But he was absolutely right about the wedding. Open The Deer Hunter with a nice, neat 25-minute prologue, and then jet right to Vietnam, and you have a much less interesting and valuable movie. Hell, I'd sooner cut out the war scenes than lose any of the opening hour - combat sequences more or less resemble each other, but the level of lived-in detail that goes into making this film's wedding sequence tells us novels' worth of material about the characters, their cultural heritage, and the pace of life in the town in which they live.

Put another way, if the opening wasn't so long, then The Deer Hunter would lose its most interesting structural conceit: it's a war movie that spends most of its running time not at war. And that's what gives its all its power. The power of the combat sequences here comes about because of the vastness of the contrast with everything that has gone before, the docu-realist way in which we've been standing to the sides and observing these people go about the business of thinking, feeling, being; we have seen an ultra-natural slice of life that goes on for so long that we've quite forgotten about anything else, and then we are plunged into Vietnam. The cut from the first act to the second is really just fucking extraordinary, right up there with the bone-to-spaceship in 2001: A Space Odyssey or the match-to-sunrise in Lawrence of Arabia in the annals of all-time great bravura cuts. We are staring at the men we've met over the last hour and change, arranged in a sleepy nighttime tableaux, and then a building is exploding. It is horribly violent and perverse and upsetting, and it doesn't ease up - for the rest of the movie, really, but certainly not for the next hour, as the film throws confusion, depravity, and suffering at us. At the time of its release, and ever since, The Deer Hunter has come under fire for presenting the Viet Cong in racist terms, as inhumanly monstrous victims who engage in psychological torture for fun and have no identity beyond the Asian Other, and I don't know that there's a defense against that criticism other than the suggest that it's utterly besides the point. Closely attentive realism was the first act; now we're in the stuff of nightmares, from the difficulty in keeping track of wear we are physically thanks to the purposefully choppy editing by Peter Zinner, down to the litany of horrors experience in Vietnam - including that unbearably tense Russian roulette scene, switching from sweaty close-up to sweaty close-up in a maddeningly tight series of cuts. That's been criticised too, as something that never, ever happened - and that's also besides the point. I do not look at the Vietnam sequences in The Deer Hunter and suppose that we're meant to take any of it literally: it's the horror-soaked subjective experience of Mike that we're watching, the half-formed nightmares that will keep him screaming in post-traumatic agony for years to come. The arbitrary cruelty of an enemy he never understood on any level other than as some horde of killers is exactly what we ought to take away, because this is a psychological representation of war, not a documentary one.

And so I return to a point I made earlier: this is basically a myth about American history. First the robust richness of community life in the Alleghenies, which are portrayed as a misty fairyland of dense clouds and greener-than-green plant life during the first deer hunt, in what's probably the most openly Great Epic shot of the whole movie. Then the chaos of fighting an unjust war for unclear reasons in a place that never makes sense, rendered as something almost like Impressionism under hellish film grain. And lastly the attempt to link these two incompatible poetic registers into one story about the national experience of the 1970s, despite how utterly alien the seem to each other. It presents an apocalyptic vision of how life after that conflict could only ever be half-formed and hollow, and it works astonishingly well at doing that.

I do, again, think the film shits the bed in the last stage: returning to Saigon to find Nick as the shell-shocked star of a suicide gambling house is one trip to the Dantean Hellscape well too many, and Apocalypse Now would do a much better job of tapping into the sense of an all-purpose corrupt world that I think Cimino was aiming for in this sequence. Walken and De Niro are certainly great - there are more than a couple of Walken performances from later in his career that I'd rather have given the Oscar to than this one, but it's impossible to deny the trapped-rat intensity of his work in the last part of the film, such a hideous contrast to the casual, cuddy friendliness he offers in the first hour. I still think it's more melodramatic than the film needs or can withstand.

But outside of that, The Deer Hunter is quite a splendid box of treasures. It boasts a litany of great, finely-tuned small-scale performances, with Streep putting in a good early example of the minutely detailed Method acting she'd bring to such celebrated heights in the '80s (and for my tastes, most of her "best" performances in that decade are a damn sight too fussy for their own good; I much prefer her when she's a little more relaxed in her decisions, like she is in the funereal dinner scene that ends this movie), and Cazale, barely clinging to life (he'd die before the movie came out) getting one last chance to show off what a wonderfully invisible actor he could be, dropping out entirely and just letting the fleshed-out backstory of a barely-scene character emerge. De Niro is superb, especially in the Vietnam scenes, when he gets to scream and bellow like a trapped animal, and in the return home, when looks mirthless and dead inside the uniform he wears like a security blanket. And beyond the acting, the locations couldn't be more perfectly chosen or tricked out by art directors Ron Hobbs and Kim Swados: it is good a depiction of small-town America as came out of a decade of cinema when depicting small-town was its own art form.

No doubt, the film bites off more than it can chew; undoubtedly, it goes for the Grand Statement when the nuanced gesture might have yielded greater results; and it is, even by deliberate design, enormously sloppy. But by God, I wouldn't trade it in for anything: this kind of fearless attempt to go big, say something, and knock the whole audience dead can never be unwelcome when it's done with this much gusto, sincerity, and remarkable craftsmanship.

*The odd man out was Best Supporting Actress, which was won by the one-note Maggie Smith in the execrable California Suite.