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review added: 3/17/99



The Deer Hunter
1978 (1998) - Universal Studios

review by Todd Doogan, special to The Digital Bits

The Deer Hunter DVD Film Rating: A
No other word sums up this film better than: wow. It blows me away every time I see it. Awarded the 1978 Best Picture Oscar, and for good reason.

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B+/B/C
This disc came out before Universal was taking the time to put out quality DVDs or special editions. Because of that, the print is dark and grainy, the sound isn't of the quality one would hope, and there are hardly any extras.

Overall Rating: B+
The DVD is worth owning regardless of the cons. There are just too many pros - no flipping or changing tapes, the performances of this film, the film itself - there are too many reasons to own this DVD.

Specs and Features

183 mins, R, letterboxed widescreen (2.35:1), single-sided, RSDL dual-layered (layer switch at 1:08:45, in chapter 8), Amaray keep case packaging, theatrical trailers, production notes, cast & crew bios, film-themed menu screens, scene access (16 chapters), languages: English (DD 2.0), subtitles: English, Spanish & French, Close Captioned

Review

When you think of The Deer Hunter, you can't help think of the image of Robert De Niro, gun firmly in hand, playing Russian Roulette. The gun is against his head, he's shouting at his friend, his captives, and everything is swirling in your on head. He pulls the trigger -- click -- then nothing.

Over time, that image by itself has lost a little bit of its power, but in the context of the film, it's as strong today as it was the first time it reflected off the silver screen 21 years ago. The Deer Hunter was nominated for nine but won five Academy Awards in 1978. It won Best Picture, Best Director for Michael Cimino, Best Supporting Actor for the powerhouse performance by Christopher Walken, Best Film Editing and Best Sound. The film, and its cast and crew, deserved every award it was nominated for, which also included actor Robert De Niro, actress Meryl Streep, Vilmos Zsigmond's Cinematography, and the screenplay.

The film takes place in four parts. Focusing on four Pennsylvania steelworker friends played by Robert De Niro (Michael), Christopher Walken (Nick), John Cazale (Stan) and John Savage (Steven), the film opens on the day Steven is to wed his high school sweetheart. The boys are seen singing songs, playing pool and getting drunk. In many ways, these four friends are one - but as the film moves forward, each will break away and become their own person - some for better, more for worse.

The second part takes place in Viet Nam and showcases the famous Roulette scene mentioned above. It's a very brutal look at the life of a soldier during this time - not just of these three prisoners of war, but what it must have been like for everyone there. What happens in Viet Nam can't really be told, but rather, should be experienced by each viewer. What can be told is, Michael and Steven make it home. Neither is in one piece, De Niro emotionally and Steven physically, but they do make it home.

That's where part three takes place. Michael comes home and has a hard time fitting back in. He is haunted by demons. He's also trying to deal with the apparent loss of Nick, his best friend. What he does try to do, is follow his heart, and slowly moves forward with his love for Streep's character Linda. We get loads of perspective on the returning soldier, and his guilt, as he reunites with his friend Steven (who is now in a wheelchair). Michael is most broken up about Nick, and when he learns that he might still be alive in Viet Nam, he returns to seek him out.

Part four then follows Michael as he returns to Viet Nam in search of his best friend, who is now a mere husk of a man, and lives life as the champion Russian Roulette player in all of Asia. It's not a friendly reunion.

The Deer Hunter is a powerful film - more so than many of today's films. It's not that its overly violent, or that its outlook at life and survival is grim - the power here is in the performances. Each and every actor in this film is a powder keg waiting to explode. De Niro is a subtle, loner who slowly boils. Walken is at first over the top, as the young friend eager to impress all his friends. By the end of it, he's a robot, whose mission is to erase his own memories. John Cazale, one of the best actors to come out of the 70s, portrays Stu as half a man, and his performance will make you dislike his character. This was his last film - tragically we lost Cazale to bone cancer in 1978.

This film is not just a testosterone love fest - the female performances are just as strong. Streep is, of course, very Streep-like in this film, meaning that she can act. She paints Linda as a woman who has a second chance at love, who didn't have to settle - and yet finds that she may never get what she wants in life or in love. Steven's bride, played by Rutanya Alda, is an incredible performance. She's everything at once, and at times she gets it across by simply laying in a bed and not talking. We feel her, because somehow, we know exactly how she feels.

On DVD, The Deer Hunter is simply okay. The print is weak. It's very grainy, and doesn't look like it was remastered for DVD. It's hardly the worst I've seen, but for this film, I'd hoped more care would have been shown. The film is old, I know, but not so old that it couldn't look better. The blacks show some digital artifacting, and the colors look muted. The sound is a tad on the "blurry" side. It's not tinny, but it's not as crisp as it should be. It sounds like the mix is just off a little bit. I would have liked some extras as well. As important as this film is, it would have been really nice to, at the very least, get a commentary track on this. I was a little disappointed that there was nothing much to really play with on this disc.

The criticisms of this DVD are based on the film's importance. I am happy to own this disc anyway. The layer switch is unnoticeable to me, this is the first time I've been unable to watch this film without having to pop in another tape of flip a disc, which is a huge plus. There is a production notes section, which was short, but sweet. I'll take what I can get, but I wanted more.

Bottom line

Few films have the power The Deer Hunter has. It's a gift that films like this exist, and that they exist on DVD. But I want more, and I hope that Universal may eventually go back and give this film the star treatment it deserves. In the meantime, I'll run this disc into the ground watching it over and over again.

Todd Doogan
todddoogan@thedigitalbits.com




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