Michael Cimino Essay - Critical Essays

Cimino, Michael


Michael Cimino 1943?–

American director and screenwriter.

Cimino is best known for The Deer Hunter, his analysis of the Vietnam War and its effects on the men who fought in it. This film is more a character study than an action war film, with many of the scenes taking place as either a prelude or an aftermath to war.

Cimino received a Master of Fine Arts degree from Yale University in 1963. He directed documentaries and television commercials in New York following graduation, moving to Hollywood in 1971. His first film credit, as cowriter of Silent Running, was followed by an assignment rewriting the screenplay for Magnum Force. In 1974 he wrote and directed Thunderbolt and Lightfoot.

The actual facts of Cimino's background are cloudy. In an interview with Leticia Kent for The New York Times, Cimino claimed he was thirty-five years old and that he had been assigned to a Special Forces Medical Unit in Texas. After his Army discharge, Cimino stated he learned moviemaking with a documentary filmmaker. However, Tom Buckley of Harper's Magazine, upon researching Cimino's background, found several discrepancies. He is closer to forty years old than to thirty-five and did not, according to sources Buckley found, spend two years in the armed forces. Nor was he ever, as he claimed, a Green Beret. These differences in allegation would appear irrelevant were it not for the fact that they are closely mirrored in The Deer Hunter.

While the artistic merit of The Deer Hunter is generally recognized, many critics have condemned its view of Vietnam, finding it manipulative and accusing it of portraying an adolescent perception of the war. Others, however, applaud its celebration of the "new patriotism" and its view of Vietnam as a historical tragedy rather than a political event. The Deer Hunter has received as much publicity for its controversial topic as for its aesthetic worth, and most objections about the film stem from ideological conflict rather than a negative assessment of cinematic skill.

If it is true that the sinner has a desire to be caught and punished, [Thunderbolt and Lightfoot] suggests that Hollywood is unable to handle its new-found freedom and is determined to sin so grossly that even its best friends will deliver the industry over to the ire of censors…. [This] sex-saturated film … degrades everyone and everything it touches, including the genre of the caper film, which serves as the vehicle for this voyeuristic appeal to youthful preoccupation with sex, cars and violence. This is not hard-core sex … or serious sex …, but adolescent sex that touches, smirks and runs. (pp. 570-71)

"Current Cinema: 'Thunderbolt and Lightfoot'," in The Christian Century (copyright 1974 Christian Century Foundation; reprinted by permission from the May 22, 1974 issue of The Christian Century), Vol. XCI, No. 20, May 22, 1974, pp. 570-71.

Jay Cocks

The best thing … about Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is its quality of going over familiar territory and coming up with things never quite expected. This is Director-Writer Michael Cimino's first film, and he demonstrates a scrupulously controlled style that lends sinew even to such usually dreary scenes as the preparations for the robbery and strategies of escape.

In his feeling for the almost reflexive defenses of masculine camaraderie and for its excesses, with his eye and grudging affection for Western lowlife, Cimino has an obvious affinity for the work of Sam Peckinpah. What really animates Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, though, and makes it distinctive is its shellbursts of lunatic comedy…. This movie adeptly creates the sort of antic cartoon world where crooks case the getaway route in ice cream carts, disarm a security guard by dressing in drag, and break into a bank vault by the simple expedient of blasting it with an enormous antitank gun.

The movie is shaky when the friendship between Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is sentimentalized, and at the end, when invention gives in to a mawkish resolution…. Cimino himself renders most of the movie with enough cunning to make it one of the most ebullient and eccentric diversions around.

Jay Cocks, "Ebullient Heist," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc. 1974), Vol. 103, No. 23, June 10, 1974, p. 83.

Peter Cargin

[In Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, we] are treated to the usual fascist touches which first emerged in Dirty Harry, with nearly everyone being degraded for cheap laughs, women are really very simple objects to be endured and nearly everything made as nasty as possible.

The second part of the film turns to the staging of a similar robbery to that carried out a few years earlier by the same team. The preparations for the robbery are rather casually depicted and the robbery of the money from an armoured bank vault seems almost too good to be true, a couple of people tied up and the safe blasted open with small artillery…. Of course, it is not so much how they carry out the robbery that is of interest to the spectator but how they don't eventually get away with it.

Peter Cargin, "Film Reviews: 'Thunderbolt and Lightfoot'," in Film (reprinted by permission of British Federation of Film Societies), n.s. No. 17, August, 1974, p. 20.

Andrew Sarris

[The Deer Hunter, a] three-hour saga of three Russian-American Pennsylvania steelworkers in and out of Vietnam, turns out to be massively vague, tediously elliptical, and mysteriously hysterical. The script … does not contain a single witty, sharp, or revelatory line of dialogue. As if to compensate for this verbal aridity, the players are encouraged to indulge in interminable wet-eyed sensitivity sessions…. The Deer Hunter thus reflects in its operatic inarticulateness certain tendencies in the supposedly ambitious American films of the past decade, while at the same time it slips in a disturbing subtext for which Cimino alone must held accountable.

Frankly, I suspect that this film has less to do with Vietnam or even male bonding than it has to do with a particularly devious expression of homosexual panic…. In a sense, The Deer Hunter has thrust the subject upon me by failing to be convincing on the psychological, sociological, or historical surfaces of its narrative. All that is left is Cimino's personal mythology, and therefore a description of The Deer Hunter is in order before we commence with the diagnosis….

There is no feeling of an oppressed proletariat in Cimino's vision of industrial labor. At most there is an intimation of boredom, from which male camaraderie after working hours functions as a boisterous release. Michael and Nick and Steven and Stan and a few other of their buddies surge into a barroom where the Steelers-Eagles games is playing on TV, and there is some palaver about betting on the points. But there is no knowingness or conviction in the way the scene is handled. No one really seems to care whether the Steelers win or lose. The banter is all too self-consciously fleeting and perfunctory, and the atmosphere is already too hot-house actorish for cold beer.

The film spends a whole hour at the Russian Orthodox wedding of Steven and Angela without telling us anything interesting about either the characters or the community….

Because the viewer's mind may start idling during this first hour, the fact...

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Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.

The Deer Hunter is a self-appointed American epic. Its scale is large, its ambition vast. It seeks to invest a sweep of American experience with mythic significance. It is designed to overwhelm.

Its subject is the Vietnam War. Consciously or not, it approaches Vietnam in terms of ancient American themes. The very title recalls The Deerslayer of Cooper, and Deerslayer recalls D. H. Lawrence's famous comment: "You have there the myth of the essential white America. All the other stuff, the love, the democracy, the floundering into lust, is a sort of byplay. The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted."

Deerslayer embodied the hunter myth that the white man's encounter with the wilderness had given peculiar force in America. This myth reached its literary culmination in the greatest hunt of all, in Moby Dick, and it has been utilized by Faulkner. Hemingway, and Mailer in our own time. Lawrence's account of the American as hunter is perhaps incomplete. For the American soul, at least in the national mythology, does melt….

The seeds of many American tragedies, [as Richard Slotkin concludes in Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600–1860], "are planted in the captive-and-hunter myth, the myth of regeneration through violence." (p. 50)

[A] new captivity, a new hunt, and...

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Ted Whitehead

Here we go on another trip around those old American obsessions—the primacy of courage, the worship of nature, the inflation of male friendship into a love surpassing the love of women. Writers as varied as Mark Twain and Fenimore Cooper, Walt Whitman and Jack London, have contributed to the development of this cowboy ethic, which finds its clearest expression in Hemingway…. The disappointing thing about The Deer Hunter is that it starts as if it's going to be a critique of [the cowboy loner ethic popularized by Hemingway] and then proceeds in wild confusion both to glorify and dilute it….

The three buddies are bound for Vietnam but before leaving they join some companions for a final...

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Gavin Millar

The Deer Hunter is not run of the mill. It is made with great seriousness and dedication…. So much about The Deer Hunter is impressive: it is said that strong men are carried, nightly, weeping from the cinema, to say nothing (I suppose) of weak women.

I can see how people are invited to be moved, but without diminishing my admiration for the film's skills … or making itself dislikeable, the film failed to move me. There is something about it—a solemnity, a lack of humour, a lack of warmth, a deviousness even, or, more fairly, a lack of self-awareness—that seems to result in not telling us as much of the truth about human beings as it purports to.

What it is...

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John Pilger

The Deer Hunter is technically slick, and perhaps its documentary and verité effects are even brilliant; something must have prompted usually discriminating critics to opt for unction and naïvete.

And, I suppose, for those who have forgotten what Vietnam was really about, or would wish to forget, or are too young to remember, or are truly naive, the slickness is persuasive; the wedding guests, the blood gushes, the bullets thud and the rotors of helicopters make the sound that is forever embedded in my brain, from years of attending the reality. Otherwise, the symbolism is leaden (one shot for the proud stag etc.), the schmaltz elongated and the sadism utterly...

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Richard West

It might be said … that Michael Cimino, who wrote and directed The Deer Hunter, had chosen an off-beat locale for the part of his film set in America. But what of his treatment of Vietnam? Naturally it can and has been argued that The Deer Hunter is not a film about Vietnam, and that those parts portraying the war (less than a third of the three-hour total) were introduced only to show how this experience marked three young Americans. After all, to invent a grand comparison, the battle scenes in War and Peace are of interest not in themselves but in the way they affect Prince André and Pierre.

But the Vietnam war was much more than just a series of battles…. Vietnam,...

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Arthur Lubow

The Deer Hunter is the first postwar Vietnam epic, a film that tries to say it all…. Into three hours of well-written, artfully edited, superlatively acted color film, director Michael Cimino has packed an extraordinary emotional wallop, making The Deer Hunter the most memorable American saga since Coppola's Godfather II. Like Coppola, who chose the Mafia as a microcosm of America, Cimino uses Vietnam to try to explain far more that one particular war. The white-faced, silent audiences leaving the theater tremble from a sense of knowledge they think that they understand not just Vietnam but some larger truths about America.

Like most great war stories, The Deer Hunter is...

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Tom Buckley

There is no story [in The Deer Hunter], only a succession of unconnected episodes strung together for what seems like an interminable three hours and four minutes. Cimino has refused to be trammeled by dramatic convention. Problems of motivation, plausibility, relationship, even chronology, are ignored. There is no development or illumination of character. Instead of dialogue there are grunts and obscenities.

Cimino has said he was not, after all, trying to make a realistic film. The implication is that he could do so if he wanted to, but that would be like setting Picasso to painting a barn. The Deer Hunter, he has said, is surrealistic, a dreamscape. He is wrong. His...

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Gloria Emerson

[The Deer Hunter is] a sick and manipulative film—remarkable only for its adolescent perceptions and wild selfindulgence—that is impressing many people as the truth, the real version of what the war was like in Vietnam. Cimino has done what no one else has succeeded in doing: he has rejected the immense suffering of the Vietnamese in the South, of the Vietnamese in the North, of the Americans who fought there, in favor of a story that suits his own longings and his own fantasies about men. Do not enrich him further by going to see The Deer Hunter.

In our desperation to explain our defeat in Vietnam, and to be comfortable with it, many people need a film like The Deer Hunter...

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Stanley Kauffmann

Early in the 1960s I joined the protests against US involvement in Vietnam, kept protesting as that involvement grew, and kept on after the withdrawal of US troops while money and supplies continued to flow to Vietnam. I mention my actions, which were no more than what thousands of others did, only to "place" myself on the subject. And to me, the torture sequence in The Deer Hunter—the Viet Cong forcing their US prisoners to play Russian roulette—did not seem intrinsically incredible: because neither I nor anyone I knew objected to the Vietnam War on the ground that the North was angelic. We knew fairly early of the tortures and murders done by South Vietnamese and US forces, but we also knew of tortures...

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Marshall Delaney

[Cimino's] attitude toward the material is the source of The Deer Hunter's great success and at the same time the reason it has been a subject of controversy ever since it appeared in December. Cimino shrewdly refuses to be drawn into a discussion of the war; against all temptation he avoids any trace of sententiousness. He presents the war not as a political event with political implications but as a great historic tragedy that fell upon the American people—rather like some gigantic earthquake that leaves tens of thousands of dead behind it. This is not how politicians and newspapers see the war, but it is how the America that Cimino is interested in—the non-political, working-class America that lives...

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