Coming Home (1978)
★★★ / ★★★★
Bob Hyde (Bruce Dern), a captain in the Marines, is to leave for the Vietnam War. He tells his wife, Sally (Jane Fonda), who has learned to accept her husband’s duty, that he feels like he is going to the Olympics, so very proud and eager to represent his country. When he leaves, Sally figures she needs to do something to pass the time so she volunteers at a VA hospital nearby. There, she crosses paths with a high school classmate, Luke (Jon Voight), who has been sent home due to paralysis from the waist down. Soon, the two begin an affair, but reality must be dealt with when Bob returns.
While its attitude toward the Vietnam War is crystal clear, “Coming Home,” based on the screenplay by Waldo Salt and Robert C. Jones, is atypical in that a love story is sandwiched in between political statements that are heard and seen. It does a good job in telling a story specific to its time period but still giving the romance an air of universality.
Without strong central performances, the film would have been preachy and phony. Voight is especially effective as a war veteran who is required to go through a thoroughly convincing emotional and psychological transformation. By learning to accept the limitations of his lower-body paralysis, he is making a statement that he is not shackled to his past—an important difference between the two men in Sally’s life, why she is willing to put her marriage in jeopardy. When we meet Luke, we feel his rage in every waking moment, from the simmering sarcasm to explosive fits. When we leave him, though anger remains, it is channeled in a healthy way. We are hopeful about his future.
The audience is always on the outside looking in as characters with no experience in the war make comments or take courses of action that underline a lack of understanding or a willingness not to understand. For example, Sally’s friend, Vi (Penelope Milford), wonders what her brother (Robert Carradine) could have gone through that was so bad when he was in Vietnam for “only” two weeks. She says it in a way that is insensitive but at the same time we realize that she does not mean anything malicious by it. Scenes similar to this make the picture rise above a schmaltzy love story between two people since supporting characters are allowed to face real concerns and questions in their own lives.
The third act coming down to Bob finding out about the extramarital affair is not as disappointing as how it is handled. There are shouting that neighbors can hear, a threat of violence, Sally comforting her husband and expressing her love, and an effort to convince someone not to succumb to feelings of anger. It feels as though the writers set aside what makes the story worth telling in order to focus on the melodrama, the very element that it needs least.
Directed by Hal Ashby, “Coming Home” flourishes most during conversations between two people, the tug-of-war between wanting to challenge one another and a willingness to reach a middle ground. It is also very good in showing how current and former servicemen’s faces change when conversations turn to the topic of war or what they had experienced. Though the pain, the frustration and the anger are muffled at times, they are there and will be there until one’s memory is no longer.