Inarguably the best movie made during the ’70s about the unique difficulties facing American veterans returning from Vietman, Coming Home is at once moving, political, provocative, and tender—and it’s also the apex of actress Jane Fonda’s anti-Vietnam War activism, even though it was released three years after the fall of Saigon. While “Hanoi Jane” alienated as many people as she inspired while the war was raging, she used Coming Home—which she developed—to focus her rage at needless conflict through the prism of war’s impact on individuals. Rather than being polemic, even though some detractors saw the film that way, Coming Home is poetic.
When the movie opens in early 1968, Sally Hyde (Fonda) is happily married to a Marine officer named Bob Hyde (Bruce Dern), and both unquestionably accept the rightness of U.S. involvement in Indochina. Once Bob leaves for his tour of duty, Sally begins to hear different opinions about the war, notably from her feminist friend Vi (Penelope Milford); Sally also begins to question the subservient role she plays in her marriage. Eventually, Sally volunteers at a VA hospital, where she meets returning soldiers including embittered but passionate Luke Martin (Jon Voight), who is paralyzed from the waist down and confined to a wheelchair. As part of her larger spiritual awakening, Sally recognizes Luke’s humanity, and they become lovers in a crucial scene that director Hal Ashby executes with a memorable combination of eroticism and poignancy. The fragile world that Luke and Sally build together is upset, however, when Bob returns from Vietnam, having been changed in disturbing ways that echo the film’s theme of how war affects different people differently.
Placing Sally’s character at the center of the story was a genius move on many levels. First and most obviously, the role gives Fonda a way to express her deep feelings about the war; she dramatizes the ravages of conflict by meticulously charting Sally’s shifting attitudes. Second, making the central character a witness to the horrors of Vietnam—rather than an active participant—allows the audience to see soldiers as real-world people instead of battleground heroes. What does it mean when a draftee is rewarded for his service by wounds that will last the rest of his life? What does it mean when a career soldier encounters horrors during combat for which he wasn’t prepared? How can those left behind in the homeland ever hope to understand the experiences of soldiers?
Coming Home is a deeply compassionate film, with Ashby and cinematographer Haskell Wexler capturing a spectrum of complex emotions in soft, painterly images; the movie is a tapestry of souls making connections and, alternately, slamming against insurmountable barriers. Coming Home is also a showcase for spectacular acting. Fonda and Voight both won Oscars, Fonda for her precise demarcations of stages in one woman’s life and Voight for his deeply touching openness. (His show-stopping speech to a group of young people near the end of the picture, while a bit of a narrative digression given its length, is among the finest moments Voight’s ever had onscreen.) Dern, unluckily overshadowed by his costars because he’s playing yet another in his long line of screen psychos, gives a performance every bit as powerful as Fonda’s and Voight’s—portraying a man who’s betrayed by the ideals to which he’s dedicated his life, Dern is frightening and yet also completely sympathetic.
Coming Home: RIGHT ON