Coming Home arrived at the tail end of a remarkably prolific decade for director Hal Ashby, one now better remembered for birthing the careers of renowned wunderkinds like Spielberg, Lucas and De Palma (like Robert Altman, Ashby was a good decade older than many of his ’70s peers). The film received considerable Oscar attention, winning Jane Fonda her second Oscar and Jon Voight his first (unlikely to be repeated, unless he experiences some kind of political epiphany and recants his outspoken Republican ways). But, unlike competing and ultimately victorious fellow ‘Nam picture The Deer Hunter, it has sunk into relative obscurity. There’s actually rather good reason for that, as Coming Home is a highly schematic, calculated film beneath its progressive surface, delivering a rote, nuance-free “war is bad” message as it “performs” rather than inhabits the realities of the veteran experience.
You can see that it’s been enormously influential, though, occupying the status of one of the first pictures to really dig deep into the Vietnam experience while informing pretty much every PTSD depiction since (well, maybe not the miracle cure Bradley Cooper experiences in American Sniper). This trailblazing quality is surely the key to its Oscar representation, that and its status as an early example of voting for an actor playing a disability; Voight’s wheelchair-bound Luke borrows liberally from the experience of Ron Kovic, a friend of Fonda and, of course, later immortalised by Tom Cruise in OIiver Stone’s bombastic Born on the Fourth of July.
But, even though the events it depicts were relatively recent, and its performers were all fully-fledged adults at the time, Coming Home isn’t really that much more keyed in to 1968 than, say, the brat pack getting out their parents’ groovy old gear in costume piece 1969 a decade later. There’s something a little odd about seeing the trio of Fonda, Voight and Dern, all in the ballpark of forty, playing in a sandpit that was mostly affecting those much younger than them (this was something also levelled at The Deer Hunter, where two of the leads were in their mid-thirties). In particular, Luke saying he joined up as a kid out of school creates a degree of dissonance over what we’re seeing.
Only a degree, though. The actors are all technically very good, and the Cuckoo’s Nest-influenced sequences in the veterans’ hospital are energised, enraged and well-observed. Fonda initiated the project, taking it to John Schlesinger before it passed to Ashby. Fonda’s Sally is the traditionally-minded wife of career captain Bob (Bruce Dern). When he departs for Vietnam, Sally volunteers at the local veterans’ hospital, slowly falling for angry but sensitive paraplegic Luke. You’ll know how this goes; both Sally and Luke experience respective awakenings, she becoming liberated, he rediscovering his compassion for his fellows, while Bob, Gung Ho about going to war, vanishes into the abyss.
If not for its cast, Coming Home really is that basically mapped out, and there’s far less nuance to the screenplay from Waldo Salt (Midnight Cowboy, Serpico) and Robert C Jones than you’d hope for or expect. I have to agree with Pauline Kael’s assessment that Dern’s character is particular problematic. It’s true to say that, like Nicholson in The Shining, you’re rather onto a loser if you’re casting Dern as someone who becomes unhinged, because he’s naturally eccentric anyway.
A bigger problem is that Ashby doesn’t seem to have any empathy for Bob, aided by a screenplay that piles on the reasons he’s a bit of a loser; Sally has never had an orgasm until Luke obliges, Bob is shipped back home after he tripped in the showers and shot himself in the calf – the implication being he might have done it on purpose – and his own anguish serves to distance him in the viewer’s mind (be it resignedly explaining how he witnessed his men chopping off heads, or threatening Luke and Sally with his service rifle).
Because there’s no component of immediate conflict, the reported experiences should be the more compelling; the screenplay needs to get the idea of horror and trauma across through non-visceral means. Instead, the picture slides into little more than Ashby’s greatest hits tape, whereby Beatles, Stones, Buffalo Springfield, Dylan, Hendrix and Jefferson Airplane accompany the drama with little regard for whether they’re germane to the scene. The effect is to smother the proceedings in a nostalgic fog.
Certain scenes in particular also come across as unearned grandstanding, be it Robert Carradine’s suicide (lacking any of the impact of the Brad Dourif’s in Cuckoo’s Nest) or Luke chaining himself to the gates of the army base gates, the latter incident already a nostalgic reverie for the days when protest meant something. Come the finale, Luke is lecturing a bunch of school kids about his experiences, getting them real to the pitfall of false bravado. It’s commendable as a sentiment but cumulatively as grating as one of those gushy heartfelt outpourings in a Robin Williams film.
Maybe that’s what you should expect with Hanoi Jane (only four years from lycra reinvention in her Workout video) leading the charge. Coming Home comes over too much as if it’s been manufactured to say something important, despite its director’s laidback style, whereas The Deer Hunter – which Fonda disparaged – has the benefit of operating on a heightened level, for all its numerous imperfections. Nevertheless, Ashby’s film is noteworthy for bookending a Hollywood era; Voight would never be so liberal-minded again, Fonda’s activism would be channelled into even less layered. ’80s-friendly material, such as 9 to 5’s (hugely popular) takedown of sexism in the workplace. And then she’d marry Ted Turner. Ashby’s considerable personal problems wouldn’t help his subsequent career any, but then his type of picture and approach to material didn’t really have much place in the subsequent decade either.