By: Movie Snurb (A Toast) –
Sally Hyde (Jane Fonda) is married to Bob Hyde (Bruce Dern), who is a captain in the Marines. He is shipping out to Vietnam and the plan is for her to move into his mothers’ house. However, she rents a house near the beach and buys a used car. One day while visiting her friend at work at the VA hospital for returning vets from Vietnam, she sees how some of the men are being treated and decides she can help these men. Sally volunteers and while there she runs into an acquaintance from high school, Luke Martin (Jon Voight). He is a paraplegic who is rehabbing at the hospital. While rehabbing they begin a relationship that evolves into a romantic relationship. Suddenly Bob is sent home for being shot and now Sally is torn between Bob and Luke.
This is a small film with a powerful impact. Hal Ashby is such a humanist director; I would bet the Hal is a very empathetic person who is enlightened in the human condition. Because of this his characters feel fully fleshed out and like real people. This film could feel idiosyncratic to the time right after Vietnam, but this film is honest about the effects of war, which makes it a timeless film. Not only does it accurately portray what vets go through and what they are feeling when they return home, but it’s also a commentary about how the vets were treated when they return home. Not just by the public, because it seems Vietnam was the only war when vets returned home to boos and protests, but this is a commentary on the medical treatment these vets receive not only when they are injured but the treatment they receive from the VA for their lives. It’s appalling and a serious issue even now.
Another reason this film feels so honest and the characters feel so real is the performances, mainly by the three main actors. Bruce Dern’s Bob is one of the many men who sign up for the war because they believe they’re doing the right thing for their country, but when they go there, they find that war isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. They military oversold them on a product and now they want a refund that they’ll never get back. So, when he comes home with a hero story about being shot then he drunkenly implies he might’ve shot himself to get out of there, it’s a horrifying reality that most people should never have to face, but millions have either because they thought they were doing the right thing or they were told they were.
Then you have Luke (Jon Voight), who has already been through what Bob has been through and he’s on the other side of it. He wanted to fight and kill for his country, but when he got over there, he realized it’s hell and pointless. Even if he hadn’t been permanently injured from the war, his viewpoint would be the same. Luke’s sentiment on war is similar to many men who returned home from war. Luke’s speech at the end of the film to a group of high school kids is a powerful scene and easily shows why he won Best Actor Oscar. It’s also brilliantly juxtaposed with Bruce Dern essentially crumbling under the weight of what he did in the war. The man is handling it worse then the man who has been placed in a wheelchair for his sacrifice.
Jane Fonda is also brilliant as the caring women being placed between two men, one who is the safe choice but who she doesn’t feel full agency with and one who is letting her be herself and helping her become the woman she wants and deserves to be. Her end as well is disheartening as it seems she is going to go with Bob because he needs her more than Luke ever would. I think the choice was made when she visits Bob while he’s on R&R in China and he nearly breaks down talking about the war. It’s an equally powerful performance and deserving of the Best Actress Oscar.
The soundtrack is amazing as well, with each song perfectly scoring the scene along with perfectly placing it in its time in history. The track list plays like a soundtrack for Vietnam. I believe that the correlation between “For What It’s Worth” by Buffalo Springfield and the Vietnam War is because of this film. Plus, you have “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane, “Time Has Come Today” by The Chambers Brothers, and the not as famous but effectively impactful “Once I Was” by Tim Buckley playing at the end. It seamlessly fits in both scenes of Luke’s speech and Bob’s break down. It’s a brilliant soundtrack that I think it had a greater impact on pop culture than anyone realizes.
Coming Home is a brilliant film about the horrors of war, the effects it has on the soldiers coming home, and their loved ones. It’s a tender and quiet yet powerful film and possibly Hal Ashby’s best film. I only hope this isn’t totally forgotten with time. I love The Deer Hunter more and it clearly has had the longer lasting impact, but this film is equally great.
Coming Home (1978) Drinking Game
Take a Drink: every time Bob is a douche
Do a Shot: for every great song.
Take a Drink: for every outburst.
Do a Shot: every time you laugh (Luke is pretty funny when he starts to enjoy life again).