WHILE LEAVING a screening of Coming Home last week, I was struck by the comments of the people who filed out behind me. "That was depressing," said a fellow college movie reviewer to his friends, "it brought back things you'd like to forget about." That's precisely what the collection of people who made Coming Home had in mind.
On the surface, Coming Home is the story of a love affair between the wife (Jane Fonda) of an unflinchingly patriotic Marine Corps captain (Bruce Dern) who is sent off to fight in Vietnam and a disabled and disillusioned veteran, played by Jon Voight. But beyond that, this film is about the aggression, insensitivity, and sexism; about the types of thought (or lack of it) that render these things acceptable. Although the film is set in Los Angeles in 1968, at the beginning of the Tet Offensive, it is not a specific criticism of our Vietnam policies. Rather, it attempts to prove that the then--and perhaps still--conventional mode of constructing reality is not only inadequate but potentially evil, leading to such things as ill-conceived wars, uncared-for veterans, and one-sided relationships.
The final spoken line in the film is Voight's assertion, while describing the horrors of the war to a group of high school students, that "we have a decision to be made here." That decision is whether or not to continue to blindly pursue our rather dubious war goals. It is a question, of course, that runs thoughout the movie, right from the opening scene in which a bunch of handicapped vets, lounging around a pool table, are discussing whether they'd go again if they had the chance to do it over. One guy explains why he would, much to the disbelief of his companions, and much of the rest of the movie is devoted to showing why his reasons, and the assumptions behind them, are bankrupt. But the underlying question is what can we do to end the ignorance, misperceptions, and repressions--all exemplified by Dern's Marine captain character--that got us there in the first place. Those who see this as a rather dated question need only consider the initial reaction of the Veterans' Administration, which refused to cooperate in the filming after its medical director, Dr. John D. Chase, called the script "a tissue of lies, distortions, and misrepresentations." (This policy was later reversed when President Carter appointed Max Cleland, himself a disabled vet, as head of Veteran Affairs.) We can't forget about these problems, the movie is saying, because they still exist.
Admittedly, Coming Home is a rather heavy-handed attempt to redefine such concepts as manhood, patriotism, and love. Activist and associate producer Bruce Gilbert, who conceived the idea for the movie along with Fonda, claims the original black and white differences between the hawkish marine and the anti-war vet were toned down. The stereotypes, however, are still very heavily drawn: the ultra-macho Dern, whose buddies' idea of a perfect party for him is "a side of beef and a case of Jack Daniels," is totally insensitive in bed, gung-ho about the war, and outraged when his wife decides to go to work (as a volunteer in the V.A. hospital) after he is shipped overseas. Sultry characters abound, from the wives at the Marine base who are more interested in Little League results than the problems facing the vets in the hospital to the shady FBI men who videotape and record all the gory details of Voight's and Fonda's affair.
Sally Hyde, Fonda's character, is also a bit overdrawn. At the outset, she is an incredibly naive, submissive spouse to the Marine career man. She doesn't seem to have changed much since high school, where her yearbook inscription read: "What is the one thing Sally would want on a desert island? A husband." Gradually, awakened by her experience in the veteran's hospital and by the feminist roommate she moves in with, a new consciousness emerges. She sheds her prudish dresses and skirt outfits for jeans and imported shirts, becomes increasingly anti-war, and eventually falls in love with Voight. After this happens, their ideal love affair becomes the central focus of the movie. But the point is that the way you love is the way you live.
Voight becomes unrealistically angelic. Once bitter and cynical, after he befriends Fonda--whom he had known in high school when she was a cheerleader and he a football star--and after he is released from the confines of his bed to a wheelchair, he changes. The blond-haired, bearded wonder becomes totally hip--sympathetic, concerned, committed to the anti-war movement rather than despair, and the model responsive lover. His abilities as a teacher and healer are unsurpassed--from helping Fonda achieve her first satisfying orgasm (in a surprisingly graphic love scene) to consoling the chronically depressed brother of Jane's roommate. In the end, Voight's role as an analyst is more important than his role as a veteran. But he is too perfect, especially in the film's climax when Dern confronts his wife with his knowledge of her affair. While the background music of the Chambers Brothers' "The Time Has Come Today" gets louder and louder, the tension mounts--Dern aims his deranged look and the automatic weapon held in his shaky hands at his wife. Suddenly there is a knock on the door. In wheels Voight, who in his native, mellow, California psychotherapist way explains that what everyone needs is a little openness. Dern shouts for a bit, but then succumbs--laying down his weapon in disgrace instead of blowing everyone away.
THE ENDING of this film doesn't really work; nothing is solved. Voight, minus the bitterness and plus some tears, is basically where he began--trying to tell people (this time high school kids) why the war wasn't worth it. Fonda, now liberated, goes shopping with her equally together friend, unaware of the emotional events taking place for the two men she still loves. No one answers the question of how Dern, at this point, can be helped; of how the roots of his type of violence-prone thought can be erased. He simply can't deal with his wife's affair, his own "failure" in Vietnam (he was sent home after injuring himself on the way to the shower), or the implications of the alternative thought being presented to him. So he goes for a suicidal swim in the Santa Monica surf.
In the end, the focus on the love affair dulls the political statement of Coming Home. The movie starts to lose its grip on you after about the first hour, but it is nevertheless an excellent film. Perhaps its problems lie in the fact that there were too many cooks. Gilbert and Fonda took their original idea to the then untried scenarist Nancy Dowd, who has since won critical acclaim for her original screenplay of Slapshot. Over a year later, Dowd came up with a long, ultimately unusable screenplay. Next they approached Waldo Salt, an Oscar winner for Midnight Cowboy, who ended up writing the screenplay. He suggested producer Jerome Hellman. Hellman and director Hal Ashby (Bound For Glory, Shampoo) eliminated some of the rhetoric, toning down the film's original polemical style. That may well be where it lost some of its political force. The love story may sell more tickets, but it doesn't come off as the stinging criticism Fonda may have intended it to be.
At any rate, Coming Home is highlighted by three brilliant performances by the leads, especially Voight. Moreover, it provides the first really sensitive treatment of the problems of the disabled in an important film. And while it's certainly not radical, it's refreshing to see something come out of Hollywood with a major political message.