“The Onion Field” (1979) dir. Harold Becker

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One of the best … and saddest … true-crime films ever made, “The Onion Field” is a docudrama about a real-life case in 1963 where two plainclothes police officers Karl Hettinger and Ian Campbell (played by John Savage and Ted Danson) were taken hostage by two petty criminals Greg Powell and Jimmy Smith (played by James Woods and Franklyn Seales). When Powell pulls a gun on Campbell, Hettinger reluctantly gives up his gun. Powell, misunderstanding California’s “Little Lindbergh law,” believed that the mere kidnapping of a police officer was punishable by death, so he shot and killed Campbell. In truth, kidnapping under the Little Lindberg Law was only a capital crime if the subject is harmed. Hettinger manages to escape. But the real nightmare is ahead …

Hettinger is scorned by his fellow officers for being “cowardly” and his experience is used in a training film on what not to do when stopping and approaching a vehicle. The overwhelming guilt causes Hettinger enormous emotional pain, at one point being forced to resign due to a shoplifting incident while working a security detail in a department store. At his lowest moment, Hettinger strikes his infant child when the child won’t stop crying, easily one of the most shocking and depressing scenes in any major motion picture.

Powell, on the other hand, became a master manipulator of the legal system. Initially sentenced to death, Powell was able to push forward multiple appeals, eventually getting a second trial and getting his sentence commuted to life.

“The Onion Field” contains some excellent performances, especially by Wood and Savage. Wood’s performance is so good, I would almost say it’s his best, if it weren’t for his performance in 1986’s “Salvador.” However, Savage’s performance is truly heartbreaking. Not only a career best, Savage not only should have been nominated for an Oscar, but walked away with it as well. It’s unforgettable.

Based on Joseph Wambaugh’s superior non-fiction book of the same name, “The Onion Field” is one of those awesomely complex films of the 1970s that’s rarely discussed these days. Director Harold Becker takes his time getting to the actual crime, but the details we get on all of the protagonists’ lives are extremely rich. His depiction of Powell and Smith’s pathetic criminal life prior to the kidnapping is one of the best depictions of low-level petty crime ever filmed. It’s high time “The Onion Field” gets rediscovered and celebrated. While the DVD is out of print, if you have Amazon Prime, it’s currently available for free viewing.

The attached scene is the depiction of the actual shooting. While it’s tastefully directed and edited, it’s still a pretty upsetting scene to watch.

“The Deer Hunter” (1978) dir. Michael Cimino

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Michael Cimino is one of the greatest crash-and-burn tales in Hollywood history. Cimino was someone who had bounced around Hollywood for years until he wrote and directed a Clint Eastwood hit (“Thunderbolt and Lightfoot”) in 1974. Based off that, he got the opportunity to make a more personal project … in this case, “The Deer Hunter.”

“The Deer Hunter” was based on a script that originally had nothing to do with the Vietnam War called “The Man Who Came to Play” (written by Louis Garfinkle and Quinn K. Redeker) which was about Vegas and Russian Roulette. Cimino had the script rewritten and placed the setting in Vietnam (the final screenplay was credited to Deric Washburn).

While “The Deer Hunter” went overschedule and overbudget, it still beat Francis Ford Coppola’s troubled and long-gestating Vietnam epic “Apocalypse Now” to the screen by approximately 9 months. So “The Deer Hunter,” by default, became THE first major studio film about the Vietnam War, post-Vietnam War. As a result, everyone expected (and treated) this film as a definitive statement on the Vietnam War, if only because there were no other films out there at the time about the subject.

If you see “The Deer Hunter” as a statement about the Vietnam War, the film will sadly come up short. I don’t see “The Deer Hunter” making ANY statement about the Vietnam War … at all. Now that there have been several films about the Vietnam War that have since been released, I think “The Deer Hunter” can be seen more objectively as a film about three friends who suffer a collective traumatic event and come back changed in irreparable ways.

There may be nothing to document that the infamous Russian Roulette scenes that took place in the film actually happend. But I don’t think the inclusion of these scenes says anything about the Vietnamese people or the Vietnam war. War in general is a messy, messy thing. Atrocities are committed on all sides in a war and not everyone plays fair or according to the rules of the Geneva Convention,  Were all Vietcong soldiers sadistic, evil bastards who committed atrocities on American soldiers? No. Were all American soldiers sadistic, evil bastards who committed atrocities on the Vietnamese?  No. Were there bad elements on both sides that committed atrocities who saw the war as an excuse to express their darkest sides? Absolutely.

Which is why, in retrospect, I can view “The Deer Hunter” less a statement about Vietnam, than what happens to three friends who suffer through a horrible tragedy and how it affects them. In my mind, the film could have removed the Vietnam element entirely and focused on another traumatic event (i.e. the one in “Deliverance”) and still have packed the same emotional and visceral punch. The use of Vietnam may have (arguably) been a cynical use of a real event for dramatic purposes. But to criticize Cimino for using Vietnam in his story is like criticizing Shakespeare for exploiting real events in several of his plays (“Julius Ceasar,” “Henry IV”). Not that I’m comparing Cimino to Shakespeare …

“The Deer Hunter” is, admittedly, a difficult film. It’s very long, has several disturbing and upsetting scenes, and is not what we conventionally see as a coherent text. But even 35 years later, it’s still an amazingly powerful film that is gut-wrenching to watch. The performances by Robert DeNiro, Christopher Walken, John Savage, Meryl Streep, and John Cazale are amazing. The cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond is stunning. It’s still incredible that a film like this would have won a Best Picture Oscar, but it is truly deserving.

This film might  still be celebrated today … if not for the fact that Cimino’s next film, “Heaven’s Gate,” was such a colossal critical and commercial flop. While many cineastes (including myself) can argue the virtues of “Heaven’s Gate,” it’s failure tainted the success of “The Deer Hunter” … to the point where several critics reversed their own opinions on “The Deer Hunter” to say that the emperor wore no clothes (Vincent Canby of the New York Times being the most notorious example). Which asks the question: “Did the critics really even love ‘The Deer Hunter’ or did they just jump on the bandwagon of praise? And by the same token, did they jump off when people turned against Cimino?”

To figure out this quandary is a useless party trick, in my opinion. While there are many parts of “Heaven’s Gate” that I admire, I still find the film severely flawed. Having said that, this doesn’t negate my appreciation of “The Deer Hunter” at all. It’s a film that never ceases to shock, amaze, and move me and is one of the best films I’ve ever seen.

I remember seeing this film for the first time on an independent over-the-air TV station uncut around 1982 or so. The film was sold to the CBS network for $5 million. But allegedly, when they discovered that they couldn’t edit this film in an adequate way, they gave up on trying to show it. The studio (Universal Pictures in the U.S.) sold the film to independent stations who showed the film uncut in two parts. All of the language, nudity, and violence was on full-display. And to best of my knowledge, there were no FCC complaints. Compare that to the ABC network’s decision to show Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” uncut in the early 2000s and not only did complaints flood into the FCC, but ABC was fined hundreds of thousands of dollars for showing it this way. I like “Saving Private Ryan” a lot, but even though it’s more graphically violent than “The Deer Hunter,” it’s arguably much less controversial. The times have indeed changed.

“Salvador” (1986) dir. Oliver Stone

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Made in the same year as Oliver Stone’s breakthrough “Platoon,” “Salvador” is arguably Stone’s best film. The late, great critic Pauline Kael described the directorial style of this film as someone putting a gun to the back of Stone’s neck and shouting “GO!!” That’s pretty much the long and short of it. The most exciting political thriller since Costa-Gavras’s “Z,” “Salvador” is like a Hunter S. Thompson story in hell.

James Woods gives his all-time best performance as sleazebag photographer Richard Boyle.  Apologies to Paul Newman, but he should have gotten the Best Actor Oscar for “Hud,” “Cool Hand Luke,” “The Verdict,” or “Nobody’s Fool.”  Sorry, Woods deserved the Oscar in 1987.  If there was any role Woods was born to play, it’s Boyle.  And the supporting performances, from James Belushi to Elpidia Carillo to Micheal Murphy to John Savage to Tony Plana are all magnificent.

This is political cinema as an action film.  You can really see Kathryn Bigelow taking notes (Stone produced her 1989 thriller “Blue Steel”) for her later work on “Strange Days” and “The Hurt Locker.”