Directed By: Hal Ashby
Written By: Waldo Salt and Robert C. Jones
Starring: Jane Fonda, Jon Voight, Bruce Dern
Hollywood’s shackles were off in 1978 as far as the cinematic treatment of the Vietnam War. No longer did the conflict need be confronted in allegory for fear of crassness, danced around and transported from the Indochina battlefields to American cities and suburbia. In 1978 The Deer Hunter would confront Vietnam’s sickly warfare head on; before that, Hal Ashby’s Coming Home would candidly confront its warped politics.
To be exact, the Vietnam War is but one of three major pieces to Ashby’s drama. Coming Home is one part Vietnam commentary, one part romance, one part mixed tape (Ashby’s film excessively relies on pop-rock classics to set the tone). You sense that if the director didn’t feel so tethered to dramatic convention however, the second of those three mightn’t have figured so prominently in the final product.
The film opens with a group of wounded combatants discussing the morality of the war at a Veterans Health Administration hospital. “Nobody’s got the right to tell anybody what to do against their will if they don’t believe it, and that’s what I went over there to fight for” one veteran rationalises.
“You call the draft not being forced?” another retorts.
“I have to justify being paralysed, I have to justify killing, so I say it was ok” a third veteran chimes in, trying to sympathetically adopt the mindset of someone who has seen the war first hand and insists it was right. Luke Martin (Oscar winning Jon Voight,) who has remained quiet during the discussion, solemnly looks down. He’s splayed out chest first on a hospital bed, the only way he can move is by digging two canes into the floor like ski poles to push himself along. If he’s lucky he’ll upgrade to a wheelchair one day. He has just realised that his paralysis has been in vain.
Ashby follows this with a credits sequence which splices a jogging Captain Bob Hyde (Bruce Dern), a dedicated military man who is excited by the prospect of contributing to the Vietnam cause, with a mosaic of amputees, men who will never again have the ability to jog, as they flounder in drab wards; an indiscrete jab at Hyde’s naivety. Ashby doesn’t attempt to disguise his political standpoint. The director wears his countercultural ideologies on his sleeve. He has something fiery he’d like to say about Vietnam.
After Bob leaves for his tour, his wife Sally (another Oscar winning performer in Jane Fonda), volunteers at the veterans hospital to fill her days. It’s there that she meets Luke, and the two find a reprieve from their loneliness in one another. They begin a romantic relationship through which Luke is able to mature through his anger and self-pity. Luke evolves through his cynicism whilst Bob, away from Sally, devolves into it, increasingly disenchanted by the barbarity his work demands.
That dichotomy of Luke and Bob, two men who are riding the same anti-war trajectory, but who are at different phases of their realisation, can stand on its own two feet as a fascinating concurrent character portrait. Did this story require a romance to properly illuminate that dichotomy? I don’t think it did, and Coming Home may have been more stirring without it.
There are great moments of tenderness in Luke and Sally’s romance however. A love scene, in which the two must negotiate Luke’s paralysis, is as real and delicately handled as any love scene committed to film. Ashby is able to navigate the Hollywood-ness of the romance by approaching it with, as he does the war itself, a frankness and honesty that lends a real-world weight. Extra-marital though it may be, Luke and Sally’s romance is no affair. There’s no air of betrayal or malice. Sally, we can never doubt, loves her husband and is a good wife. Rather, this was an affair that needed to happen for the sake of the two lovers, even if its bearing on the plot is extraneous. Much credit should be given to the two Oscar winning performers for their work in this regard. Voight and Fonda bring a texture to their characters that isn’t there on the page. Together they summit the mounting genericism of the plot which attempts to stymie them. We believe in them, transparent in dramatic function though their relationship is. Their interactions feel natural and true.
Bob returns from the war wounded and broken. He is embittered. Given the overt nature of Ashby’s stance on the war, it wouldn’t be right to say Bob is disillusioned with Vietnam, rather, he is awakened, and he has brought the conflict’s ugliness home with him. It’s the final moments of Coming Home, moments which once again splice sequences of Bob with an earnest representation of the tolls of the war, that are the most poignant. The ending is difficult to decipher. It’s incomplete and fractured; messy and grey and unfulfilling and dejecting, all by design, all adjectives which could extend into description of the war itself. At its best, Coming Home is an assessment of the war which nestles in the gut, a succinct snapshot of the conflict’s murkiness which requires not an ounce of viscera. Yes, Hal Ashby has much to the say about Vietnam, and he is undoubtedly the man to say it. It’s just a shame that he had to fashion his thesis around a one-size-fits-all romance for the sake of populist drama.