The Russian Roulette of Life.
War and life, a series of chance.American Film Institutes Ranking: #79/100
Awards: Nominated for nine winning five highlighted by Best Director, Picture, and Supporting Actor.
This movie has a unique canter. It starts with introducing a bunch of people that reminded me of all the people I hated from high school. Then, it sprinkles in a poor plot line involving Meryl Strep that’s made even worse by her acting. The foundation for the story is a confluence of cheap reminders that these people are working class.
It ultimately manages to weave these lesser parts together into something rather substantial.
The steelworker buddies Mike Vronsky (Robert De Niro), Nick Chevotarevich (Christopher Walken), and Steven Pushkov (John Savage) are leaving their small western Pennsylvania town to go fight in Vietnam. Steven gets married before the three are shipped out, and this serves as a dual purpose to celebrate the marriage and the three’s commitment to their country. We learn Mike is in love with Nick’s girlfriend Linda (Meryl Strep), but his advances get rebuked as she is only interested in Nick.
After the squad has their last hunting trip together, the movie switches to live combat in Vietnam with Mike in the thick of battle, using a flamethrower to decimate the opposition. He serendipitously runs into Nick and Steven in the field before all three are captured.
As POW, they are made to play Russian Roulette for the entertainment of the guards. Mike is the voice of reason, trying to keep his friends calm to find a way to escape. Steven breaks down during his game of Russian roulette and doesn’t follow the rules — the guards then put him in an underwater prison with rats and dead bodies. When it comes to Mike’s and Nick’s turn, they kill their captors while freeing Steven.
All three get separated, and the rest of the film follows their individual paths to reconciliation with the evils they have seen while attempting to reintegrate upon return to homeland America.
It’s not a good film in the beginning because of the characters — there is very little to like about anyone involved in this movie. They all significantly lack depth, and when you put them all together in one room it becomes an overwhelming frat party. Many words are used, but nothing is expressed. Dialogue becomes a circular “Fuck you,” “No, fuck you,” “Actually, no fuck you,” hot potato.
There is supposed to be a meaningful interplay between Nick, Mike, and Linda. The awful characterization in the film is not sexist; she is just as boring as the rest. They try to make her a damsel in distress (her father is an abusive alcoholic), but this seemed more like slight of hand. They put her in a stereotypical situation but rob her of any spirit or autonomy. Our concern for her is limited and as superficial as the script writing.
This has to take a backseat though because the three main characters are making the ultimate sacrifice. What kind of asshole would I be if I pounded away at these characters full knowing what they are about to do?
For me, this is ends up being such a big positive for the film.
The typical expectation was to set up a demarcation between the characters: those that went and those who did not. We knew these three would return to their sophmorish friends unable to relate. What I did not expect was the amount of empathy that it elicited from me — for everyone. This circle of friends got utterly destroyed.
Their extreme naivety was the basis for my dislike: small town folks doing small town things. This all gets changed when the returning war heroes slice their bubble open. Mike doesn’t give a shit about the male posturing anymore when he returns; how could he? Stan continues his macho act, talking big and waving around a gun, and Mike snaps on him, shoving the gun in his face telling him how small he and insignificant he is. Even though Mike was out of line, his message was true. The friends realize how pathetic they all are.
Before, the petty antics were only stupid. Now, each failed projection is a realization of their lack of meaning and substance in their life. Once the hometown hero returns, there is no turning back to the value hierarchy that was.
The game Russian roulette is the central metaphor in the film for good reason: you rush into war and don’t die but all your friends do. It’s nothing you did in particular, just chance. This spills over into the secular domain just as easily, as those who didn’t serve are left with the same relationship to fate. The ending has the shambled characters sing a harrowing “God Bless America,” left wondering what happened to them.
Everyone was playing an involuntary game of Russian Roulette, some just made it out and others didn’t.
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