Coming Home (1978) is about the affair between Luke Martin (John Voight), a paralysed Vietnam war veteran, and Sally Hyde (Jane Fonda), the wife of a Marine officer (Bruce Dern) who was sent to Vietnam during the war.
Sighs…you know the feeling when a film you loved the first time becomes slightly underwhelming the second time you watch it? That’s what I feel a little about Coming Home. When I first watched it last year, I was absolutely crazy over it and gave it a 5/5 without hesitation. Right now, however, I feel less enthusiastic. (Makes me wonder how I’ll react to The Deer Hunter the second time round).
Still, I won’t deny that Coming Home is a great film that I enjoyed watching, even though I don’t find it amazing any more. The screenplay is good, worthy of the nomination but not really the win in my opinion. The script has its terrific moments, but at the same time some parts this time round felt a bit…manipulative and “obvious” to me, like when Luke protested against the war by chaining up the gates of the army base, and when he was giving the speech to the students. I also had my problems with Penelope Milford’s character; don’t get me wrong, she gave a good and saddening performance that deserved the nomination but somehow I felt that the character was a bit pointless, and I was quite bored by her scenes. It’s easy to see why it lost the directing and best picture Oscar to The Deer Hunter, even though both movies are about the vietnam war. The Deer Hunter is more ambitious in scope, covering both the horrors and the aftermath of the war in greater detail and emotional intensity. Furthermore, I think Michael Cimino had that directing Oscar in the bag with that russian roulette scene. Coming Home just felt a bit dry this time round.
That doesn’t mean that I think less of Coming Home though. This movie’s focus is more on the effects of the war on those who have already returned home from it, but one thing I liked about it is how it covers in greater detail the effects of the war on those not directly involved in it. We basically follow the story through the point of view of Sally, the initially naive housewife of the army who volunteers at the hospital to take care of the injured soldiers. Sally represents us all; she doesn’t understand why Luke is so cynical and upset about the war, and thinks that he should be proud of the fact that he was a sergeant because of his responsibilities. The movie shows effectively the indifference of commoners towards the plight of these war veterans, such as when Sally tries to get the other housewives to be more concerned about the situation. However, even though Sally becomes a more “aware” person, we sense that she still doesn’t get the full picture because at the end of the day she is still sheltered from the actual horrors of the war. This is one aspect of the film that I greatly appreciated, because of how it represents us. Sure, we know that wars are horrible, but we only know because of the stories that we hear and read about. The true horrors can only be felt when one witnesses it personally, and thankfully, we don’t have to. It’s not as simple as coming back from the war and resuming life as usual. Soldiers do suffer from post traumatic stress disorder, and the movie realistically depicts how Sally feels alienated from her husband, and how she still does not understand the detrimental effects of the war on him despite her volunteering work.
The movie explores the impact of the war on the relationships between those involved, be it the soldiers or those waiting at home. Besides the strained relationship between Sally and her husband, an affair also starts to happen between her and Luke. It’s not just as simple as them being an adulterous pair; you can sense that these 2 people are lonely people in search of companionship. The relationship between Sally and Luke is easily my favourite part of the entire film. It’s extremely human, and their conversations are very meaningful and not cheesy at all, such as when Sally is talking about how she is becoming what people see her as, or when Luke is showing her the photos of the war. The chemistry between both actors is amazing; it’s not something that is burning through the screen with sexiness (yes, despite the sex scene), but very emotional, beautiful and touching. Jon Voight deservedly won his Best Actor Oscar here; his Luke is so full of sadness, anger, bitterness and cynicism, and to watch him slowly come to terms with his fate and “recover” is a very touching process. I wouldn’t have given him the win over Robert De Niro, but I don’t mind it as well. The same can be said for Jane Fonda. I totally understand why some people dislike her second Oscar win, and I myself wouldn’t have given it to her over Ingrid Bergman, but I absolutely loved her performance. I wouldn’t say it’s underwritten; the character is meant to be an ordinary (“boring”) housewife, but I felt that Fonda added many nuances and subtle moments that are highly impressive to me, even if they may go unnoticed by people expecting hysterical breakdowns and tears. How can anyone forget her palpable embarrassment as she is being made fun of by the puppet? Or how she awkwardly wonders why she wants to light the fire? Or her beautiful conversations with Luke, and how she “transforms” and experiences true love as compared to her relationship with her husband? It’s an uninteresting character, but the performance is full of emotions and layers, be it anger, confusion, fear, sadness and excitement. Of course, I can understand that many people find such “quiet” acting unimpressive but not me; the performance is very beautifully human and one that I can relate to, and in fact I prefer her work to Voight’s performance.
At the end of the day, I enjoyed Coming Home very much but I have become slightly less enthusiastic about it this time round (although my appreciation of the performances remain unchanged). It’s a respectable film that is actually easy to watch, with some terrific moments coupled with mediocre ones. I still like it very much. 4/5.