Best Picture #51: The Deer Hunter

Each week this column will highlight one winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture, progressing chronologically until all winners have been discussed. There will be a brief discussion of the film itself followed by a mention of what we wish won from the nominees in the given year (though in many cases there were films that were superior in terms of quality and/or impact that were not nominated). This week’s entry is The Deer Hunter (1978).

A three hour epic about the horrors of war and the American vision, The Deer Hunter still feels like a very personal film that focuses primarily on male bonding and friendship and the inescapable suffering forced on so many. It’s long and has an undeniable scope and a potent critique of the Vietnam War that earned it a spot on many lists of best war films, but I often found myself thinking it played directly into the things it was trying to dismantle. All war films are bound to glorify war in some manner and that certainly happens here, with many being drawn to it for the promise of watching fighting, but it also perpetuates a certain idea of Vietnamese inhumanity and American purity, even if there is a recognition that it is often motivated by idealistic stupidity, and the message ultimately comes down to the same simple one as so many others- war is hell. Yet, for whatever misgivings I may have about those aspects, they all have a purpose and strengthen the film in their own ways. It’s a film that focuses on its characters and giving the basic worldview they could be expected to have, which makes sense as a way to make them sympathetic. It also leads to fun moments of the men singing and hanging out and heart shattering ones where they experience the consequences of war, alongside the tremendous Russian roulette scenes that are among the most difficult scenes to watch from any film. It’s a fairly simple film and most of the power of The Deer Hunter derives from its incredible performances, with De Niro and Walken putting in some of the best work of their lengthy and lauded careers and Cazale, in his final role, bringing an added potency to the conversations about mortality and proving he was a major talent gone far too soon, while others like Streep and Savage are similarly great in their roles. Even if it can be a bit uneven and, at times, unsure of what it wants to say, the deep emotional moments and intense depictions of brutality make it feel monumental.

The Real Best Picture:

In true ‘70s fashion, the Academy absolutely picked right with The Deer Hunter.

Best Picture Winners

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