Particularly during a time of our continued military entanglements with foreign nations, Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter comes across less as an honest grappling with the American involvement in Vietnam than as a deeply myopic stroking of American machismo. Opening with a wedding and ending with a funeral, the film announces itself as a vital statement on the transformative effects of the war on our national consciousness, positing with its very structure that the war presented a threat to our sanity, well-being, and, most of all, our moral exceptionalism. Trouble is, the only perspective it bothers to represent is that of the working-class male, and thus the film’s every development is filtered through masculine ethos, which, by extension, is equated with American national identity. Inevitably, this leaves out the possibility of hearing from women, and, most egregiously, the Vietnamese people, all of whom, historically, should be owed a say in these pivotal events.
The film divides its three dramatic acts quite transparently: pre-Vietnam, Vietnam, and post-Vietnam (these acts refer not to the actual timeline of the war but rather to the involvement of the main characters in the war). In the first act, Cimino laboriously establishes the drab Pennsylvania industrial milieu in which these characters live and work. Michael (Robert DeNiro), Stan (John Cazale), Nick (Christopher Walken), Steven (John Savage), and John (George Dzundra) are all factory laborers who spend their free time hunting deer in the mountains nearby. The sheer amount of time spent on this preamble to combat is designed to outline the core American values embedded within the milieu that will be compromised by the experiences in Vietnam: material modesty, work ethic, commitment to community, and self-reliance.
For the sake of plot convenience, the second act presents the inverses of these values, naturally displacing these negative attributes on the Vietnamese without ever realizing the floating irony that Vietnam’s history of imperialist manipulation mirrors some of our own early struggles to become an autonomous nation. Without deviation, our “enemies” are presented as barbaric, impulsive, and careless with regards to the life or death of their peers. Russian roulette, which eventually factors heavily into the plot, is formulated as the harrowing site of all these qualities, and the violence-plagued pleasure districts that Michael and Nick find themselves charting perilously into represent the opposition to the modesty and faithfulness that mark the film’s notion of American domesticity. These high-stakes events and settings are incorporated by the film exclusively for the purpose of challenging the characters' inner strength, and thus the narrative demands that they be pitched at the level of hyperbolic extremity. The result is an undifferentiated mass of hollering Vietnamese hooligans (portrayed, largely, by Thai actors) whose lives are apparently consumed by pointing handguns at anonymous heads and shouting deadly instructions, or unleashing cries of thoughtless thrill at the sight of blood gushing freely from someone's skull.
Anyone with even the smallest margin of empathy and understanding for that which is unknown to them should be able to spot such ludicrousness as a grotesque distortion of an Other. Perhaps this shortsightedness would be less offensive if Cimino didn't relay his fear-mongering exaggerations through a veneer of authenticity. The Deer Hunter as a whole is production-designed with exquisite attention to filth and squalor, and it saves its grimiest effects for Vietnam; the back-alley roulette room where Nick finds his sanity slipping away is a madhouse billowing with smoke, illuminated by a single unflattering overhead source, and otherwise shrouded in murky shadows where one can only assume the walls are caked in dried blood or Stalin portraits. While this filth is disorienting, seemingly a black hole of darkness capable of destroying one's sense of space and time, the lesser circumstances on the home front feel comparatively inviting. The only dangers presented by the Pennsylvania environment are metaphorical rather than actual; thanks largely to snatches of mystical a cappella drenched in church reverb, the mountains emanate mythical overtones throughout, and it is here that the central metaphorical challenge of the film is posed: will the men be able to kill the deer in one shot, thus affirming their strength and certitude, or will they need two shots, thus descending to the misogynistic level of “pussy”? Cimino applies the ill-fitting logic behind this masculine code of honor across the film.
The talents of Meryl Streep, Rutanya Alda, and Amy Wright, meanwhile, who constitute the pining feminine cluster back home, go to waste against the brute force of all this macho grandeur. As Linda, the conflicted love interest of both Michael and Nick, Streep is allowed the most screen time by a long shot, but even then her potentially complex character is reduced to a stick figure of grief, indecision, and longing, the collision of which Streep does her best to muscle out in numerous close-ups. Especially in the film’s final third, she is always on cue to be acted upon according to the needs of the script. She is less a character than a cipher onto which the male characters’ romantic desires and frustrations can be projected, and thus is physically oriented as such; when Michael finally returns home, she is merely sitting there in the middle of the room doing nothing when the door is knocked, her motionless pose of ennui not only a comically overwrought actor’s gesture but also a crystallization of her blatant passivity throughout the film.
If there’s one thing The Deer Hunter fully understands it’s masculine stubbornness and the absurd lengths to which a man will go to affirm his bravery and self-sufficiency, or, to put it more fittingly in the terms of the film, to prove that he’s not a pussy. The issue with the film, however, is not the degree to which it represents this quality of virility, but the astounding arrogance it takes to conflate this position with national identity. Nick's final, and ultimately fatal, dismissal of Michael's plea to come home is particularly wrenching because it fully invests in this warped mindset at the expense of an uplifting outcome. But in the end it's Michael who the film equates most squarely with the persevering virtues of the American Man because he finds a less senseless outlet for this stubbornness, overcoming the tempting madness of the "enemy" to re-focus his attentions on his local community. Yet in doing so, he remains stubborn; his unwillingness to recognize the root of the issue – his country's flippant refusal to try to understand the victims of their attacks – muddies his supposed self-actualization, even as the film celebrates his behavior as headstrong leadership. It's possible to praise the film's downcast ending as an admirably ambivalent take on patriotism, but even its manufactured ambiguity is flimsy: the "wounds" of the war may weigh heavily over these characters, but the lasting impression is of a questionable moral victory for those surviving.