Genre: Drama and War Running Time: 2 hrs. 7 min.
Release Date: February 15th, 1978 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Hal Ashby Actors: Jane Fonda, Jon Voight, Bruce Dern, Robert Carradine, Penelope Milford, Robert Ginty, Mary Gregory, Kathleen Miller
n a frank, eye-opening manner, a group of Vietnam veterans, many of whom are in wheelchairs, discuss varying perspectives on the draft, their tour, the purpose of going, and the possibility of returning. USMC Sergeant Luke Martin (Jon Voight) remains largely silent during the exchange, listening but not imparting his own thoughts, perhaps favoring his booze a little too much to concentrate. As disabled soldiers having experienced combat, their curiosity and optimism about military duty is vastly different than those awaiting a mission; here, they’re coping as much as recovering, learning to deal with the newfound horrors of permanent injuries.
Meanwhile, in California, Captain Robert Hyde (Bruce Dern) prepares to head to Vietnam himself, maintaining a rare enthusiasm and excitement; he even likens it to going off to compete in the Olympics for his country. His wife, Sally (Jane Fonda), accepts it and claims that she’s proud, but she’s nevertheless reserved in her support. “You don’t need to be afraid for me, you know,” comforts the captain. Soon enough, Robert departs, accompanied by Sergeant Dink Mobley (Robert Ginty), who leaves his own girl, Vi Munson (Penelope Milford), behind. To manage her concerns, Sally volunteers at the VA hospital, where she helps feed patients, serves drinks, washes laundry, and does other menial tasks, quickly realizing that the war takes a considerable, unimaginable toll on everyone.
“There’s not enough beds, there’s not enough staff.” Frustration over the insufficient facilities, the lack of compassion, and the treatment of the patients begins to weigh heavily on Sally. The constant suffering – and feelings of inadequacy all around – are emotionally exhausting. Despite her initial low impression of the cynical, angry, insulting Luke Martin, she finds herself steadily drawn to the man, sharing some of his angst but also recognizing his potential for psychological rehabilitation – expedited by her own kindness and generosity.
“Coming Home” is a decidedly anti-war drama, shedding light on the less cinematic side of armed conflict, focusing on the depressing aftermath rather than the action-packed fighting (borrowing a few beats from “The Best Years of Our Lives”). It’s poignant and powerful (boosted by a recognizable, contemporary soundtrack), using Luke’s persona to illustrate a particular hardship and the abundance of issues that stem from a war-inflicted disability. With Hal Ashby at the helm, the film also explores very human relationships; these are complicated, believable people, undergoing realistic stresses in realistic environs. And what really makes it all come together is the acting; Fonda and Voight are absolutely exceptional, giving this tale a staggering genuineness and depth. Not a single line of dialogue sounds exaggerated or unconvincing.
Another major aspect of these characters is their inability to communicate effectively – chiefly between the military men and their significant others. Experiences with violence and inhumanity warp the soldiers’ abilities to convey their feelings, bottling up anxieties until they explode in ever more destructive ways. No one is immune; the women remain just as conflicted, dealing with long separation spells, a certain level of unexpected independence, and shifting emotions. When the anticipated yet striking love triangle takes center stage, new consternations arise; when war has made such an irreversible impact on everyone involved, as well as their relatives, can relationships ever return to a semblance of normalcy? If being fully prepared for war is an impossibility, so too is coming home unchanged and unscathed, as exhibited so perceptively in this indelible, revelatory work.
– Mike Massie