Saturday, September 22, 2012

Casualties

Film: No Man’s Land; The Deer Hunter
Format: DVD from NetFlix (No Man’s Land) and DVD from Northern Illinois University Founders Memorial Library (The Deer Hunter) on kick-ass portable DVD player.

War is a constant in human history. But individual wars? Specific wars? There are hundreds of conflicts most of us know nothing about. Right now, think of everything you know about what happened in Bosnia in the last dozen years. If you’re like most people, including me, you were done in less than a minute. No Man’s Land takes place during this conflict, and is both tangential to the war and a complete definition of the war.

A group of Bosnians is moving to the front as a replacement unit, but the night is foggy and the group gets lost. In the morning, they realize that they’ve gone too far and have wound up between the Bosnian and Serbian lines of battle. Serbian forces open up immediately, killing almost everyone and wounding a man named Ciki (Branko Djuric), who winds up in an abandoned trench. Neither side really knows what is going on, and eventually the Serbians send out a pair to check the trench to see what is going on.

Once there, one of the soldiers (Mustafa Nadarevic) decides to create some booby-traps for the Bosnians. He places the body of one casualty on top of a bouncing mine—they move the body, the mine goes off and kills everyone in a large radius. Unaware of Ciki, they decide to wait until nightfall when Ciki ambushes them, killing one and wounding the other. This other soldier, Nino (Rene Bitorajac), is now the prisoner of Ciki, but they’re still stuck in this no man’s land between the two sides. And then the soldier on the mine, Cera (Filip Sovagovic), wakes up.

There’s something of a power struggle between Nino and Ciki, each trying to get the upper hand and control as much of the situation as he can, with only Cera acting as the voice of reason. Eventually, the two strip down and climb out of the trench, waving flags to attract attention on both sides. Not knowing what to do, both sides contact UNPROFOR, the United Nations force in the area there to distribute humanitarian aid. Since UNPROFOR’s mandate is to avoid all conflict and merely act as observers, things get complicated quickly. UN soldier Marchand (Georges Siatidis) wants to help but is continually ordered back and told to stay out. It’s not until a reporter named Jane Livingstone (Katrin Cartlidge) gets wind of the story that UNPROFOR is forced to act, with the commanding officer (Simon Callow) needing to walk a careful edge between maintaining his UN mandate, rescuing the men in the trench, and looking like he knows what he’s doing.

No Man’s Land could be deeply comic, but is not. Instead, it is terribly tragic and is so intentionally. Everyone involved winds up in a Catch-22 situation, unable to do what is right because of a mandate, and unable to follow given orders because of their essential lack of humanity. It’s important to get into some spoilers here to really address the meat of the film, so if you haven’t seen this (and you likely have not), skip the next paragraph.

*** INTO THE TRENCH ***

Eventually, UNPROFOR is forced to act and rescue the three men. However, the bomb disposal expert reveals that there is no way to defuse the mine, and thus no way to rescue Cera. Once out of the trench, things between Ciki and Nino come to a head, and Ciki shoots Nino before being gunned down by one of the UN troops. UNPROFOR pretends to defuse the mine and carries out a body on a stretcher, but leaves Cera to his fate. On the way out, they release to both the Bosnian and Serbian sides that the other side will attempt to take the central trench, thus creating a battle of artillery that will likely remove the evidence of Cera’s abandonment. The ending, a slow pull away from Cera lying on the mine while the sun sets, is sobering, to say the least.

*** OUT OF THE TRENCH ***

With a different director and with the ridiculousness of the situation played more heavily, No Man’s Land would become a war comedy of the blackest stripe. In truth, there are a few comedic moments in the film, as there would be in a real situation like this. However, Danis Tanovic has his actors play this straight, and it was the right choice. Rather than being darkly comic, the film is instead bleak and despairing. This is precisely the tone the film needs. The stories of Nino, Ciki, and especially Cera are tragedies, and are treated as thus. These are men thrown into a terrible situation and left to suffer.

The best moment in the film comes when Ciki confronts the entire group, calling them all vultures watching the suffering of his people and asking the journalists if their misery pays well. I got the feeling that in a very real way, this was not just the question of Ciki, but also the question of Tanovic, and perhaps that of all Bosnia as well.

No Man’s Land is a frustrating film, but it’s supposed to be. It offers up a terrible situation and gives no real answers, or at least no answers that anyone likes. Like all good modern war films, it dispels the notion that war is anything like a noble pursuit, but is instead just killing and dying for the causes of others. It also makes criminals of everyone. Nothing that happens is the fault of Nino or Ciki, but in the end, both are guilty.

Unlike No Man’s Land, The Deer Hunter focuses as much on the life of soldiers back in the world as it does on the war itself. Perhaps more than almost any other film I have seen recently, The Deer Hunter divides itself neatly into three legitimate acts of roughly the same length. The first third takes place in rural Pennsylvania, the second in Vietnam, and the third in both places. We are introduced to a group of friends before they head off to the war, see what is undoubtedly the worst of their experience in the war, and then we deal with the aftermath as the three of them discover that some demons cannot be exorcised. Put more simply, the first act introduces us to our main characters and their lives. The second act (the most memorable in many ways, but also the shortest) takes place in Vietnam. The third is the return home, either broken or whole.

We start with a gang of six: Mike (Robert De Niro), Steven (John Savage), Nick (Christopher Walken), Axel (Chuck Aspegren), Stan (John Cazale) and John (George Dzundza). As the film opens, we are on the eve of Steven’s marriage to Angela (Rutanya Alda), who is pregnant by another man. The other five are planning on a hunting trip after the wedding and before three of them—Mike, Steven, and Nick—head off to Vietnam. The opening is to give us a solid picture of these men and their relationships. We learn that Mike is the leader and is also a bit of a control freak. He likes things the way he likes them. Steven is weak-willed, henpecked by his mother and willing to marry a woman obviously involved with another man. Nick is quiet and likes hunting because it allows him to be up in the mountains and around the trees. The other three are more or less born steel workers, wanting to make enough money to shoot pool and drink beer and have a good time.

Much of the focus of the opening is also on the relationship with Linda (Meryl Streep). She is attached to Nick, but there is a definite connection between her and Mike. Before the trio goes off to Vietnam, she agrees to marry Nick on his return. Once the group goes hunting, we see even more of Mike’s controlling nature as he refuses to loan anything to the evidently scatterbrained Stan. We also see evidence of his mantra of “one shot,” meaning that a deer should be taken with a single shot, a way to profess and demonstrate a sort of mastery.

The most controversial part of the film is what happens in Vietnam. The three friends are reunited and just as soon captured. Their fate is to act as entertainment for their captors, playing Russian roulette on command. Steven is unable to play, firing the shot that would have killed him into the ceiling. Mike, however, has a plan: he arranges to play against Nick and demands three bullets in the gun, and uses this to kill of the guards and escape with his friends. Only Nick gets on the helicopter, though, forcing Mike and Steven to fend for themselves. Steven is badly injured and Mike gets him to a hospital before eventually rotating back to the States.

While the Russian roulette sequences are the most controversial, they are essential for the final act back home. Mike, we learn, is emotionally broken by what has happened, unable to attend his own welcoming party. Steven has ended up a double amputee and wheelchair-bound and doesn’t want to leave the VA hospital because he feels that he no longer fits at home. He’s also been receiving packages of money from Vietnam, resulting in Mike returning to hunt for Nick, who now plays high-stakes Russian roulette and appears to have no memory of his past.

The Deer Hunter is a war film only by virtue of the fact that a part of it takes place in a warzone. It is far more about the results of war than about the war itself, which is likely why the central section of the film is the shortest. The first act is necessary to give us a sense of the characters, the second to show us what they endured. It is the third act where everything pays off, and everything we have learned comes to fruition.

I’d seen bits and pieces of this film before. I remember one of my sisters liking this film a lot, and being forced to watch the Russian roulette scenes when I was too young to watch them. They are difficult to see simply because of what they represent and not because of any particular gore or violence. They are also some of the best scenes in the film.

The Deer Hunter turns in many ways on the characters and their reaction to what happens to them rather than on the elements of the plot itself. Forcing the characters to play Russian roulette is certainly an exceptional choice, but it is the reactions of the three men that truly make the film what it is. De Niro and Streep, as always, are as good as they ever are, but it’s Walken who always takes center stage when he is on camera. I also like John Savage, an actor with a surprisingly massive filmography and who should be better known.

I would be hard-pressed to call The Deer Hunter my favorite film about Vietnam or even one that rates anywhere on that list simply because it isn’t much of a Vietnam film. It’s far more about the personal aftermath of the war and of any war. Everyone comes home a casualty if they come home at all. And that’s really the whole point.

Why to watch No Man’s Land: The ridiculousness of war exposed.
Why not to watch: Because the ending can’t possibly be a good one.

Why to watch The Deer Hunter: A sweeping story of the pain and tragedy brought by war.
Why not to watch: The wedding sequence never ends.

9 comments:

  1. The Deer Hunter is a difficult film for me, because when it's not boring me, it's scaring me to the point of traumatizing me, then depressing me to the point of suicide ideation. It's good, but once was enough for this one.

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    1. I agree that it's yet another in the list of films that could use some Slim-Fast. A lot of that wedding/reception could go pretty easily.

      As for the trauma...yeah. I don't disagree with you.

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    2. They do the conga line forever!

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  2. "No Man's Land" is one of the films that I THANK "The Book" for introducing me to. You should consider creating a sub-list of greatest films you did not know about prior to your involvement in 1001.

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    1. That sub-list would probably number close to 300 by the end. Idi I Smotri would be the top right now, though.

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  3. Both are good representations of the darker side of war. I like The Deer Hunter on many levels, but primarily because of all the stellar performances. No Man's Land was an interesting story to watch, and for my students it has been educational.

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    1. I was really taken with No Man's Land. I'm wondering why I never heard of it.

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  4. When I wrote my Amelie review I noted that it had not won the Best Foreign Film Oscar. No Man's Land had, but I had not seen it. I watched it shortly after that to judge for myself. While I felt it was a strong film, in no way did I feel it was better than Amelie.

    I agree with the others who said that the opening of The Deer Hunter felt too long. That might have been because all I knew about it was that it was a war film, so I expected it to get to those scenes right away, but it didn't.

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    1. I completely agree on Amelie. I liked No Man's Land, but Amelie is (in my opinion) better, more enjoyable, more rewatchable, and probably more influential in the long term. It's not, however, more "important" in the Oscar sense.

      With The Deer Hunter I was mostly surprised at how little actual war there was in it.

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