Directed by Hal Ashby
1978 is kind of a black hole in my movie world. This is another best picture nominated movie that I didn’t know anything about. When I picked it up from the library and saw that it was a movie about Vietnam starring Jane Fonda, I wasn’t thrilled. I’ve never been a fan of hers. But then I reminded myself that I loved watching Jane Fonda (and the rest of the cast) in Grace and Frankie, so I tried to put my prejudices aside and just lose myself in the movie, which turned out to be easy to do.
So what’s the story? Sally’s husband, Bob, is excited to be going to Vietnam to actually start doing his part in the Vietnam War. While he’s gone, Sally starts volunteering at the nearby VA hospital, where she reconnects with Luke, whom she knew in high school. Luke was injured in the war and is now a paraplegic. He is angry about the war, so naïve Sally tries to pull him out of his bitter shell. As they both wrestle with the tragic effects of war on so many different people, they find themselves falling in love.
The Good: Against my own expectations, I found myself very impressed with Jane Fonda’s performance as Sally. Sally grows slowly over the course of the film, and Fonda was able to show Sally’s progression from the little wife to a strong, brave woman. It’s a beautiful, heartbreaking piece of acting.
John Voight was equally good as Luke. I have prejudices against him, too (the Jim Phelps I know would never, ever betray the IM force), but since the long hair and beard helped disguise his face, I was able to appreciate his acting and feel the sadness, bitterness, and anger of a man returned from war, as well as his excitement when he started to feel that his life might get better.
The supporting actors were just as good as the leads. Penelope Milford played Vi, Sally’s free-spirited friend who worked at the hospital to be near her brother Bill, who came back from Vietnam with severe PTSD. Keith Carradine, who played Bill, and Bruce Dern, who played Sally’s husband, Bob, both portray men who can’t handle what happened in Vietnam, although they deal with it in different ways. Everyone in the movie is touched by the war somehow, and they were all able to show the different facets of living with something that can destroy men’s souls.
Both the music and cinematography in Coming Home were unusual in a good way. There was no original score, only songs that were from the time of the Vietnam War. When a song wasn’t playing in the background, there was no music at all, which added to the realism of the movie and forced the viewer to focus more intently on what is happening in the scene. The cinematography had a similar effect. There were a lot of shots of people’s hands as they were talking, underscoring what they were saying. This really stood out to me in the first scene, where actual veterans are having an unscripted conversation about the war, but it happened at other times, too.
The costuming and hair styles also underscored the changes people were making. As Sally found herself, she dressed in more comfortable, practical clothes instead of the dresses, heels, and pearls favored by the other officers’ wives. She let her hair be natural instead of straightening it. But when she went to Hong Kong to see Bob, she once again assumed the dress and appearance of a proper officer’s wife. It was a nice touch.
The Bad: Once again, I am so glad that I live now. The bad things in this movie are not problems with the movie, per se, but with the times. The attitudes towards women are terrible. Yes, I realize that people with the “men know best” attitudes still exist, but they aren’t as prevalent as they were. I’m also glad that PTSD is better understood and treated than it was in the past. I know treatment isn’t perfect, but it’s come a long way since the 1970s.
The Ugly: Coming Home isn’t a perfect movie, but there’s certainly nothing “ugly” about it.
Oscars Won: Best actor in a leading role (John Voight); best actress in a leading role (Jane Fonda); best writing, screenplay written directly for the screen.
Other Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best actor in a supporting role (Bruce Dern); best actress in a supporting role (Penelope Milford); best director; best film editing.