[Originally published in Movietone News 60-61, February 1979]
Like Bound for Glory, Hal Ashby’s latest attempt at chronicling the moods of an era is an honest if ham-handed effort. As in Shampoo, a love triangle becomes emblematic of the political and social polarities of a nation at the crossroads (an idea that was old before Doctor Zhivago). Coming Home also shares with Shampoo a self-deluding sense of its own importance and originality; it says nothing about Vietnam and the Sixties that hasn’t been said for the past ten years, and speaks only to those who already know, and feel, more than Ashby’s film ever manages to express. Nevertheless, the powerfully acted love story between officer’s wife Sally Hyde (Fonda) and wounded vet Luke Martin (Voight) is tenderly felt, a welling-up of joy tinged with the guilt of infidelity that reflects the larger, less overt guilt of rebellion against Uncle Sam and all that he stands for. There’s an important truth here: Sally changes her whole lifestyle, and her convictions, not out of a moral or political commitment, but because she falls in loveâ€”just as opposition to the Vietnam War was initially grounded in personal attachment to the people whose lives were wasted there, while the sense of moral outrage came later, an extension and justification of the more concrete personal resistance. It’s something Ashby and scenarists seem to recognize in making Luke Martin someone Sally knows from high school; and the Fellini-esque airport sequence of the dead and wounded coming home together (Haskell Wexler’s finest moment in an uncharacteristically pedestrian job of cinematography) recognizes the basis of American opposition to the war in the searing intimacy of the suffering of friends and neighbors, lovers, husbands, sons.
But the writers, alas, have opted for the melodrama of suicide, mutilation, public protest, noisy hysterics, violence and threat, instead of the subtler, more honest, and infinitely more terrifying quiet desperation of most Vietnam veterans. There are no scenes in Coming Home to compare with Dana Andrews sitting in the shell of a junked B-17 in The Best Years of Our Lives (a film with which, in many ways, Coming Home invites comparison, to its own disadvantage). The film is almost never as understanding of Marine Captain Bob Hyde (Dern) as it is of Sally and Luke, though his emotional paralysis is much more symptomatic of the war’s true legacy than Luke’s physical injury. Even Hyde’s most sympathetic scenesâ€”his fumbling efforts to come to terms with what the war really is, as he limps through R&R in Hong Kongâ€”are undercut by the soundtrack: the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil.” In fact, Ashby’s use of a pop-song music track becomes a tiresome reminder of the movie’s essential lack of integrity.
Gathered from as early as 1965 and as late as 1970 (the film is set in ’68), the songs, with few exceptions, are used arbitrarily, usually without any onscreen source, and rarely make any contribution to our understanding of the film’s characters and their world. To be sure, the music works rhythmically, and draws out a nostalgic response from us that was certainly intended by Ashby. But the response is the same that the songs would evoke without Ashby’s quote-marks, or his film, wrapped around them. It is to Coming Home‘s credit that it stirs memories and emotions deep in the consciences of its viewers. But it does so by a button-pushing system of easy referrents, rather than by creating memorable, affecting images of its own.
© 1979 Robert C. Cumbow
Direction: Hal Ashby. Screenplay: Waldo Salt and Robert C. Jones, after a story by Nancy Dowd (and, uncredited, Jane Fonda and Bruce Gilbert). Cinematography: Haskell Wexler. Production design: Michael Haller. Editing: Don Zimmerman. Production: Jerome Hellman.
The players: Jane Fonda, Jon Voight, Bruce Dern, Penelope Milford, Robert Carradine, Robert Ginty.