vietnam

Worst Best Picture: Is The Deer Hunter Better or Worse Than Crash?

image source: director's guild of america

image source: director’s guild of america

Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 1978 winner The Deer Hunter. Is it better than Crash?

The most common element in a Best Picture winner is either Dustin Hoffman or war. This one’s a war movie, but it’s so much more than that.

We are fascinated with war because it’s the biggest, craziest thing we can think of. One whole loosely defined group goes up against another loosely defined group and they duke it out over something. In The Deer Hunter, a group of Pennsylvania steelworkers has a lavish wedding party before serving in the Vietnam War. They drink and dance and then go off to war. It feels inevitable.

The Vietnam War is the one we don’t really know how to talk about the most, perhaps, and it certainly was in 1978. Every single element of The Deer Hunter is designed to feel like a march towards something terrible. The men go through a wedding but are gripped by the thrill/fear of going to war. They go hunting but are more consumed by their thoughts than by the hunt. They go to war and are made to not just shoot at other people, but to turn the guns on themselves. Through iconic Russian roulette games, Robert De Niro and Christopher Walken are as chilling as anything in any other movie on this list. The Deer Hunter will break you down into your smallest pieces.

The Hurt LockerPlatoon, and The Best Years of Our Lives are all “war” movies that are about the external struggle as well as the internal struggle, but the “war” itself in The Deer Hunter almost doesn’t matter. The guys have to go to war to have their psyches opened, but they were always, partially, these people. It’s traditional in that it has the whole “your own worst enemy” thing going on where the internal struggle plays a larger role than the literal war, but it’s almost surprising how little Vietnam there seems to be in this Vietnam War movie.

It’s depressing, intense, and dramatic. It’s probably too much of all three of those things, though that will depend on what you want out of The Deer Hunter. Even if you think the whole thing is too much — and some of the symbolism can’t be said to be anything but “too much” — you will get something out of it. It will make you feel something for this unfortunate group of men. It’ll definitely do that.

The Best Part: The performances here are all spot-on: peak Robert De Niro, 30-year-old Meryl Streep, stone-serious and terrifying Christopher Walken, and the final film role of John Cazale. Everyone’s perfect here, which is good, because they have to pull off some insane stuff. I found it tense in a great way, but it’s definitely possible that the entire thing will feel too ridiculous to you. That seems to be the primary rethinking of The Deer Hunter, though I think it goes right to edge of madness without tipping over.

The Worst Part: The film works in thirds: America, trip to Vietnam, back to America. That first third is supposed to set up the characters, but they don’t really matter until they are changed. People always come at Tarantino for not editing, but this has to be the most unnecessary act in film history. It’s nearly an hour long and does about five minutes of work. There’s something to be said for establishing a tone, but “happy at a wedding before the war” does not need to be as long as the war itself.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? The Deer Hunter has been rethought a lot since it came out and shocked everyone, and I think that’s probably the only thing that could have happened. Most of what makes it so great is the shock. The Russian roulette scenes are all terrifying, the brutality of the war scenes are terrifying, the trip home is terrifying. Everything truly excellent in The Deer Hunter is excellent because you can’t believe what you’re seeing. I’ve mostly skirted the specifics here to try to keep this what it needs to be: something that you don’t see coming. Even if you have a vague awareness of The Deer Hunter, it’s much like needing to see Rain Man. Just knowing what it is isn’t enough, you have to witness it. You don’t need to see Crash, you can just take my word on that one.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement | 12 Years a SlaveThe Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love | Wings | Midnight Cowboy | Rocky | Gone with the Wind | Chicago | Gladiator | Cavalcade | The Greatest Show on Earth | You Can’t Take It With You | The Best Years of Our Lives | The GodfatherCasablancaGrand Hotel | Kramer vs. Kramer | The French Connection | In the Heat of the Night | An American in Paris | Patton | Mrs. Miniver | Amadeus | Crash, Revisited | How Green Was My Valley | American Beauty | West Side Story | The Sting | Tom Jones | Dances with Wolves | Going My Way | The Hurt Locker | The Life of Emile Zola | Slumdog Millionaire | The Deer Hunter

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

Worst Best Picture: Is Platoon Better or Worse Than Crash?

1987_iconic_picture_platoon

Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. All posts should be considered to have a blanket “spoiler alert” on them. Today’s installment is the 1986 winner Platoon. Is it better than Crash?

If someone asked you to see a movie about the evils of war and the dual nature of man with regard to good and evil, you might be on board. If someone told you that movie had Charlie Sheen at the center, you would need to ask what year it was.

Charlie Sheen’s career is a curious one. A few years back people were going to Charlie Sheen live shows just to see what he’d do. He went crazy in public and everyone gawked at it because mental stability is razor-thin. Everyone is afraid to lose their mind. Everyone is fascinated to watch it happen to someone that, apparently, no one really wants to help.

Tiger blood and whatever aside, Platoon is Charlie Sheen in Oliver Stone’s manifesto about how war is hell. He joins a huge cast that also includes Forest Whitaker, Willem Dafoe, John C. McGinley, Keith David, and Tom Berenger all yelling at each other about how best to handle being left in Vietnam with no clear purpose. It’s certainly about Vietnam, but it’s also about how adversity changes a person. The titular platoon is divided into two camps. One follows Dafoe’s by-the-book approach of not murdering and raping people, the other sides with the crazed Berenger and his apparent plan to save the village by destroying it.

This may sound odd, but there’s an awful lot of actual war in this war movie. People who watch Full Metal Jacket for the first time are often surprised that the entirety of the scenes and quotes they know all happen in the first half hour or so. All of Full Metal Jacket‘s cultural cache happens before they even get to the damn war. Not so with Platoon. Oliver Stone makes a deliberate choice to keep the camera on the violence. Over and over, the cast is thrust into the jungle to get shot at again. It’s a two hour movie and at least a full hour of it takes place with gunfire in the background.

The effect is very real: War is everywhere, and when you are at war, doubly so. It makes for an uneasy viewing that constantly drills home what Oliver Stone wanted to say: Do not ever romanticize this. He’s said that he made the movie because he felt that too often audiences were only presented with positive and heroic portrayals of war.

Platoon is a brutal movie. When McGinley’s character saves himself during a firefight by hiding under dead bodies, it is both frightening and sad. The Vietnam War is never an easy subject to discuss in American history, but the general consensus seems to be that it was at the very least a damned shame. Platoon is essential viewing to understand the American experience, and whatever you think of Oliver Stone’s personal politics, this movie’s only agenda is tough to debate.

The Best Part: For sheer memorability, the scene where McGinley covers himself with a body to survive stands out. The firefights are so arresting that even 30 years later they still create a sense of anxiety and dread. Forrest Gump‘s ‘Nam is very similar, but it doesn’t feel like it matters. This feels real — too real — and the movie hums because it scares and depresses the viewer.

The Worst Part: Berenger’s character is a brutal villain. War movies often only show one side of a conflict, so it can be tough to discern a “villain” in the classic sense. In this movie, it’s definitely him. He tries to sow dissent through violence and threats. He reacts to someone saying that he should cool down by burning down a town. He’s the violence in all of us wrapped up into one scarred up guy. If there’s an issue with him, it’s that he’s never really explained. He’s left as this uber-asshole, just a guy who wants chaos for chaos’ sake. Those people assuredly exist, but he could be deeper with some motive.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? It can be tempting to just say that Platoon is good and Crash is not, but it’s about the whyPlatoon stirs the pot by forcing Americans to watch one of their greatest nightmares on camera. Crash stirs the pot by demanding that present day is worse than we admit. War and racism are both complicated and both bad, but we’re on board for that. The challenge is to find something new to say, and Platoon does. The “good” guys in Platoon are still burning down a town and at war. They’re still racists and violent lunatics — they’re just less so than their counterparts. Platoon introduces shades of grey into what war does to a person. Crash suggests that shades of grey are just what we pretend exist because we won’t open our eyes. Both are negative messages, but one is without hope, and that’s just not interesting. It’s not the pessimism that dooms Crash, it’s how damn happy to be “right” about its message that does.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement |12 Years a SlaveThe Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons |

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

 Image source: Oscars.org