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One of these films that I only watched so long ago that I only remembered it vaguely and – it turned out – wrongly. In my memory, after a short prelude in the ghastly American home town, the film moved to Vietnam, where it would stay for the better part of the movie, to return to the US and back to Vietnam towards the film’s end. Turns out that the opening sequence where the guys’ friendship is established, the atmosphere of the hopeless steel city they have to leave and the girls, wives, neighbours from the Russian community are introduced… that this opening sequence is probably the longest setting of the whole film, with extensive deer hunting and wedding sequences … all this as a huge and epic foreplay to a short and vicious Vietnam sequence, throwing us right into the camp where three of our friends are imprisoned, and forced to play Russian Roulette. This is where the damage is done to them who ended up being caught there, and soon it is about how to coping with returning home after the war.

This is very odd narration, but it works perfectly well, focusing on where the characters are built and where they are bent and broken. The rough and sober reality of working class steel town is juxtaposed with almost ridiculously beautiful images of the mountains where they go hunting – first deepening their bond of friendship, later realising that a deep rift has opened that cannot be fixed anymore.

Great acting by de Niro, Walken, Streep and also the minor characters at home. An atmosphere that was well-crafted to reflect the careless joy of buddy-dom, then of the frantic struggling for survival, both physically and mentally, and the quiet desperation of dealing with returning to a home that is a home no more. The sequences when Michal / de Niro goes back to Saigon to find his friend have an almost absurd quality, pushing him into a strange underworld that probably was depicted more realistically than we can imagine today.

I still stick to this film, Cimino is a great narrator of epic stories, and this story is epic in that it demands everything from its characters to cope with one of the US’s and Asia’s big catastrophes. He has the ability to personalise this, to take it from a level of global politics to individual trauma reflecting and magnifying national trauma. Masterful!

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