From Sunday's New York Times: On 29 March 1973, the last United States troops left South Vietnam, ending America's direct military involvement in the Vietnam War.
I can't recall the last time I watched The Deer Hunter in a single, uninterrupted sitting. I suspect, reflecting on the first Vietnam-inspired Hollywood epic (preceding the similarly overstuffed Apocalypse Now by a full year), the extensive overture is necessary not only to set the tone, but to signify, on literal and figurative (artistic) levels the last glimpse of a way of life that was about to irrevocably change.
With minimal pretension (that would be saved for the movie's third act) and effective subtlety, the elaborate, unhurried scenes depicting the plans and preparation for the big wedding illustrate a way of life that, even without the war, was almost obsolete: the steel mills and coal mines, of course, would not figure as prominently in the lives (and livelihoods) of the next generation. Less remarked upon, but equally significant is the vivid depiction of a reliance on religion and ritual that seemed much less archaic in an era when it was not uncommon for first or second generation immigrants (mostly from Europe) to comprise the (invariably blue collar) workforce.
As such, the film's first act is a document of a time that was slouching, not exactly innocently but less than fully prepared, toward the end of its own history. First there was the '80s and what the powers that were did to the unions, then the '90s and what computers meant for the majority of workers unfamiliar with the Internet.
The Deer Hunter's second act deals with the horrors of combat and the third act with its aftermath; those are the parts that, while not as deliberate and languid as the less eventful opening act, become weighted down with their own urgency and all-encompassing compulsion to illustrate Big Truths. This is where the (inevitable?) lack of subtlety and (unfortunate) pretension sometimes suck the air out of the action on the screen. Still, the scene where De Niro skips his own homecoming party and paces nervously around his motel room says as much about the alienation and subsequent disillusionment (where he came from, where he went, where he is headed) than most films and books devoted to the uneasy homecoming Vietnam veterans endured.
For an unfettered and forceful examination of this awkward chapter in our country's history, I've yet to encounter a work that improves upon Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried. But the single scene (from any film, and more immediately than any book) that successfully synthesizes the before and after of that war, and that era, is the brief, devastatingly beautiful scene that concludes the first part of the film: post-wedding and pre-war; no words are spoken but a great deal is conveyed. The world will soon be a different place for the friends headed to war as well as the ones who stayed behind. It is an elegy for folks who are beginning to understand that everything has already changed.