If it feels like Robert De Niro has just always been around, well … he has performed in credited work for 55 years now. From the unpredictable and often deceptively boyish looseness of early films to his multifaceted late-career journey into action, family fare and comedy, De Niro has endured as an icon for multiple generations (even if some of those first knew him as an animated shark). In honor of the actor’s 80th birthday this month, Midwest Film Journal staff writers and contributors are taking a look at some of his biggest (and lesser-known) roles. Intimidation and insecurity. Belligerence and benevolence. Hopeless romantics and horrific killers. Gangsters and nurturers. This is Bobby’s World.

The Deer Hunter looms large in cinema history. So large, in fact, that I regret agreeing to write this article. 

I just feel like there cannot be much to say that hasn’t already been said about a movie so revered. Devotees to the film already appreciate the nuanced portrait of what war does to an entire community; they appreciate the wedding sequence, which is an all-out character-development assault on the audience; they praise the realism of the film, from the locations to the casting of an actual factory worker for Axel (Chuck Aspegren in an all-time one-off performance). And when performances are considered, it’s easy to focus on Christopher Walken (who won an Oscar), Meryl Streep or John Cazale (who was dying of cancer during filming and didn’t live to see the premiere). 

All of these things make this movie untouchable from a film-criticism standpoint. But when the possibility of writing about The Deer Hunter with a focus on Robert De Niro came up, I saw an opportunity.

Despite being the star, I think De Niro gets overshadowed by many of the aforementioned aspects. Sure, he was Academy Award-nominated for Best Actor that year, and The Deer Hunter is consistently mentioned among his career highlights. But when looking at the film itself, De Niro rarely seems to be the focus. With that in mind, I watched the film again and came away thinking this may be my favorite De Niro performance.

A lot of this has to do with the character of Michael. He has the burden of strength among his friends. Before they head off to Vietnam, Michael comes across as a kind of unspoken leader of his friend group, though he doesn’t seem to want the role. This is evidenced when he takes off streaking after the wedding or when Stan wants to borrow some socks from Michael for the hunting trip and Michael refuses because he’s sick of taking care of him. Cut to a Vietnamese POW camp, and Michael is once again forced to take charge and facilitate an escape. 

Michael isn’t presented as some classic war hero in this moment; he’s just doing what needs to be done to survive. He isn’t going to give up and die because that doesn’t make sense. To Michael, it’s natural to do what needs to be done to get home. Because of this, he’s the only one who comes home, seemingly unscathed. 

Steven loses his legs and an arm and wants to stay at the VA hospital because he “doesn’t fit” in the world any longer. And Nick is so shaken from his experience being forced to play Russian Roulette that he becomes a drugged-out shell, continuing to take part in the game because he doesn’t know what else to do. Then there’s Michael, who goes home seemingly physically and mentally fine.

Of course, Michael is not fine, far from it. In stark contrast to the wedding sequence, which is all about this community he was a part of, Michael now can’t even bring himself to attend a welcome-home party. Being “strong” means not being able to tell everyone that he actually feels broken, and being surrounded by a bunch of people who don’t quite know what to say to him would be a miserable experience. When he does reconnect with friends, he hangs back. A telling moment is when he attends a bowling league night. He stays by the bar observing until Axel gets stuck in one of the lanes and Michael then springs forward to help get him out. It’s the purpose he needs to justify being there.

Michael realizes he’s not done saving his friends and goes to get Steven out of the hospital. There, he learns Nick is still alive and attempts, but fails, to save him from the Russian Roulette game.

Michael has some charged moments in the film — such as when he’s goading his captors to let him play with three bullets or when he puts a gun to Stan’s head and pulls the trigger during the disastrous hunting trip — but Nick’s death is the only time he truly comes unglued. This is the moment that finally breaks Michael, a man who has spent most of the movie surrounded by broken people.

If the film were to end with Nick’s death, it would be an overly miserable affair. But we get the funeral and, more importantly, the awkward breakfast at the bar afterward. The bar is their attempt at normalcy, and it fails as no one knows what to do. Coffee, vodka and beer are poured. Too many cups are brought out. Silverware is haphazardly put down. It’s that weird moment after a death in which people want to be helpful or do something, anything, that makes sense, but it’s just not possible. Just as it is not possible for these people to ever be “normal” again. The only thing that brings them out of the funk is an impromptu singing of “God Bless America.” 

The singing of “God Bless America” could potentially be seen as ironic or even sarcastic, but I’ve always found it as a mindless comfort for the characters. It’s a song they all instinctively know, and while patriotism has drastically changed their lives (and ended one), it makes them feel together again, if just for a moment. It’s a bittersweet ending: These characters may not return to their former lives and relationships, but they at least will get small moments like this to get them through the dark days.

Normally, this amount of film summary would cause me to delete all of this and start from scratch. But in this case, it’s necessary to appreciate De Niro’s performance throughout the film. It would be easy to just cherry-pick the loud moments, all of which are classic De Niro, but they are not the moments that affected me. 

De Niro has the nearly impossible task of appearing troubled without showing it. Aside from the loud moments, his is a minimalist performance out of necessity. He somehow conveys the sense of loss Michael is experiencing in scenes in which he’s standing there watching his friends bowl or reluctantly getting closer to Linda while feeling like he is betraying Nick by doing so. Because he’s the strong member of the group, Michael doesn’t get to completely give in to his grief and trauma. He just knows how to survive, whether that is getting out of captivity or dealing with people awkwardly greeting you by saying shit like, “We sure won over there, huh, Mike?”

While De Niro was arguably at the height of his talents at this point in his career, a lot of credit belongs to director / co-writer Michael Cimino, primarily for committing to the wedding sequence and all the pre-war scenes in general. Without those lengthy moments in these characters’ lives, their transformations mean nothing. This is why Walken wins the Best Supporting Actor Oscar; people see him go from a generally happy guy to a traumatized zombie. For De Niro, it gives the audience a chance to see that Michael also was a somewhat happy man, though he longed for Linda and perhaps bristled at his status as de facto leader of his friends. He still enjoyed those people, for the most part. While not perfect, life was good. And just like when Michael returns from Vietnam, De Niro conveys most of this almost entirely through silence.

Seeing De Niro’s change in the last hour of the movie is even more impressive when you factor in the Cazale element. Because Cazale was dying, all of his scenes were filmed early on in the schedule. This means De Niro had to switch from pre- to post-Vietnam from day to day and before he filmed those charged Russian Roulette scenes. 

It’s a performance that gets better every time I watch the movie. Much like how Michael is expected to be the strong person in the group, and compared to Walken’s work here, De Niro’s performance is almost an afterthought. Not to take away from Walken, but his performance is deafening by comparison to De Niro’s. Through what happens to Nick, Walken is able to turn into a completely different person after the war. De Niro has to do everything so subtly because his character is the only one who “just” comes back home.

The subtlety of De Niro’s performance in The Deer Hunter was something I took for granted for years watching this movie. Now that I’ve focused on it, it will, rightfully, get my full attention during every subsequent viewing. All of the famous elements of this film are great, but there’s also nothing new to discover in them once you’ve experienced them for the first time. With a performance like De Niro’s, there will be something new to appreciate for years to come.