Written by: Deric Washburn
Starring: Robert De Niro, John Cazale, John Savage, Meryl Streep, Christopher Walken
War’s impact on the individual has such a personal effect because experience gets morphed with who an individual is heading into battle and what they go through when there. A general approach does not do anything but do these stories a disservice. In The Deer Hunter, three distinct perspectives get captured to display the true physical and psychological horrors experienced in war.
A group of friends in Pennsylvania enjoys each other’s company and the occasional hunting trip to take down some deer. With promising lives at home, they hope to get through their tenure in Vietnam to leave them with the ability to come home. While each of them survives the horrifying experience, they each face their own difficulties in re-entering society.
Lengthy in its runtime but completely validated with its scintillating and somber story, watching The Deer Hunter will certainly leave a discernible impact on how anyone views veterans. The story follows these three men as they endure torture not many could handle in their time serving and while they receive thanks for their service their way of life gets negatively altered in an irreparable manner. Even with it providing the perspective of all three the main person the story follows is Mike (Robert De Niro), as he makes his way home relatively more intact physically and psychologically as compared to his other friends. Sadly enough, he had less going for him when he returned home as Steven (John Savage) got married shortly before their deployment and Nick (Christopher Walken) recently got engaged. It only makes their particular struggles all the more heartbreaking.
Their time in Vietnam cannot be described as anything other than hell on Earth, as they were captured by the Vietcong and forced to participate in Russian roulette. If they refused, they would be forced to stay under the floorboards and stand in the water with dead bodies and rats making their homes there. Being stuck there for any number of minutes serves as its own form of torture before taking note of the horrific game they were forced to participate in. Showing this sets the stage for the irreparable damage done to these men and the reality of what their service to the country would actually turn into. Knowing the failed effort and horrible intentions behind the Vietnam War makes the events shown in the film even more heartbreaking because it stole the future of these men.
As horrid as the events during the war prove to be, the true sadness occurs when they return back home and must confront being back in a normal world after experiencing what they saw at war. These scenes serve as a respite from the high intensity of what occurred in Vietnam, but it also demonstrates the ignorance spewed by individuals who never served. Everything can be fun and games when playing around with weaponry but having to use it for basic human survival when in battle changes things. Mike has a scene displaying this sentiment exactly when others try to play cute and he knows better of the horrors a firearm could have with someone. This entire adjustment back into the normal world creates a divide because veterans watching this film will know exactly how these characters feel, as they try to internalize the trauma they experienced to put on a happy face upon their return. Having not served in the military in my lifetime, I cannot fully speak on the impact, but the film lays it out in a truly stark manner. It demonstrates the success of this film in the way it can outline the trauma of these characters and how it does not line up with the normal civilian experience. The three men the story follows have such humanity in them, which refuses to allow them to solely be vessels for the story.
The acting on display in this film just breaks the heart from how well these actors portray the brokenness of their characters. Christopher Walken, out of all others, delivers such an agonizing performance as Nick. As someone with such charisma at the beginning of the film, seeing his descent from his time at war really brings the emotional heft of this story. Walken makes the switch so impressively to capture the horrific trauma this character fights off psychologically. In addition, Robert De Niro gives another of his tremendous performances and it also has an early appearance of Meryl Streep in a limited but still impactful role. Every actor provides a moment of substance to the story because of the focus on the emotional journey this story takes the audience on.
Certain imagery in The Deer Hunter will forever be etched into my memory because of the impact it has on the story and these characters. It shows a complete experience to display the effects of war on three individuals in three different ways. What these men saw overseas haunts them for the rest of their days, and through these characters, they display why coming back to normal life comes with so much difficulty. The emotional magnitude of the story lines up the narrative themes in such a proficient manner to tell an impactful and heartbreaking story.