AFI #53: The Deer Hunter

In 1978 the Vietnam War was still very much on the minds of Americans and this played out artistically with intense films over the years meant to stir the emotions and remind us that war is hell. This particular war gave us some very memorable and important films like Platoon, Hamburger Hill, Full Metal Jacket, Casualties of War, Coming Home, In Country, Gardens of Stone, and The Killing Fields. The best of these films at portraying what it might have been like in Vietnam was Apocalypse Now, and for my money the best at portraying what it was like for those who served was The Deer Hunter.

The 1979 Best Picture winner starring Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep, Christopher Walken, John Savage and John Cazale is the most emotional depiction of the war’s toll on small town America. Most of the film isn’t even set in Vietnam, but rather in the small Pennsylvania steel town where first-generation Americans born of Russian immigrants volunteered to go to Southeast Asia in support of the country that did so much for their families. The three “heroes” played by Walken, Savage and De Niro leave their hard scrabble life where they enjoy the little things like drinking with friends and deer hunting in the nearby mountains only to encounter horrors of war that none of them could have imagined. The result turns their lives upside down and also affects the lives of their friends and loved ones left behind. The film came out just a few years after the end of the war, and so it made quite an impression on the American audience.

The film won five Oscars including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Supporting Actor for Christopher Walken. De Niro and Streep were also nominated but did not win. Walken’s performance was memorable and indicative of his great work to come over the years. His portrayal of Nick was haunting and intense and leaves you breathless during the climactic scene when De Niro returns to Vietnam to try to bring him home from his new life playing Russian Roulette for money. The scenes in Vietnam when the guys are captured by North Vietnamese soldiers and forced to play Russian Roulette are as dramatic as any scene ever filmed and leave a lasting impression; in fact, the film is often remembered specifically for that scene. But the scenes before the war and after the war back in Pennsylvania are equally emotional and powerful.

It’s hard to imagine another film that leaves you with such a bad taste in your mouth about war and the human condition related to war. Surely The Deer Hunter is as strong an indictment of war as any film ever made and it is undoubtedly one of the best American films ever made. I have always counted it among my all-time favorites and it’s a little surprising to me that it wasn’t higher on the AFI list. Apocalypse Now comes in at #30 and I think The Deer Hunter is superior in most ways (I’m sure many of you will disagree but this is my blog!).

Next up is the second straight De Niro flick: Taxi Driver

AFI #91: Sophie’s Choice

Sophie’s Choice was one of the films on the AFI list I wasn’t overly excited about seeing again. To begin with, I’d seen it. But I also have a hard time watching Holocaust-related films because when you grow up Jewish you pretty much have to see it all — from Hollywood films to documentaries to short films about butterflies (my MOT friends who went to Hebrew School will get this reference). But then I started watching Sophie’s Choice yesterday and I was immediately drawn in to this amazing film.

All discussion of Sophie’s Choice must begin and end with Meryl Streep. Say what you want about Streep, but it’s no accident she has been nominated for 16 Academy Awards. She won her second “Best Actress” award for her role as Sophie, and frankly I’m not sure how an actress can perform any better. I didn’t think for one second that she wasn’t a Polish immigrant in this film…she was astonishing.

Sophie’s Choice is an actor’s film, by which I mean the three leading roles carry the action throughout and the film is entirely dependent on those performances. I suspect Streep knew what she was getting into when Alan Pakula cast her, but lost in Streep’s magnificence were two wonderful performances by Kevin Kline and Peter MacNicol. Sophie’s Choice marked the feature film debut for Kline and his work as Sophie’s “mad lover” Nathan was very memorable and clearly indicative of things to come for this Oscar winner. And then there was Peter MacNicol in only his second film, playing “narrator” Stingo. MacNicol never did turn into a great film star, but he has won a handful of Emmy Awards for great performances in a whole host of TV shows from Ally McBeal to 24 and Grey’s Anatomy. This acting ensemble was fabulous and it’s quite remarkable that the film didn’t even get nominated for a Best Picture Oscar.

That year’s Academy Award for Best Picture went to Ghandi, which was a great film but did not even make the AFI Top 100. Also nominated that year were two films that did make the AFI list (Tootsie and E.T.) along with The Missing and The Verdict. Sophie’s Choice certainly deserved to be nominated…it did get nominated for the Golden Globe.

Sophie’s Choice is definitely worth seeing again if you haven’t seen it in a while. Most people know it because of the horrific “choice” itself that Sophie had to make at her arrival at Auschwitz, but it’s so much more than that. It is funny at times, and heartwarming, but ultimately it’s a tale of man’s inhumanity to man and how difficult “recovery” can be. It’s also a commentary on madness (the Nazi kind and the kind that afflicts everyday people like Nathan). I was glued to the screen this time around and really, really loved Sophie’s Choice.

Next up: AFI #90 Swing Time