Coming Home (1978)

Coming Home (1978), directed by Hal Ashby.

When her husband in away in Vietnam, a dutiful Marine wife becomes (mildly) radicalized and liberated and falls in love with a paraplegic veteran.

Here the anti-war generation of the 1960s step up and tell a story from their perspective. It was Jane Fonda's project from the beginning, inspired by the story of Ron Kovic, whose book Born on the Fourth of July was later filmed by Oliver Stone.

Message films must be made oh-so-carefully. There is no easier way to make a bad film. This one goes right up to the line but I think works in the end, if you can forgive the lecturing tone of some scenes.

What it does well:

Today, about half the dialogue sounds like clunky anti-establishment hectoring, particularly the "meaningful" bits. The little impromptu personal interactions and funny give-and-take are better.

The characters and situations are set up with a clear demarcation:

The Old Guard: Marines and anyone fighting the war, Bruce Dern (previously a psycho-killer, now a soldier, isn't that a bit blunt?), snotty officer's wives, bad sex, unappealing squares who try to pick up women in bars, FBI agents who spy on desperate lovers.

The Newly Liberated: move to the beach, buy a sports car, new hairstyle, volunteer at the vet hospital, fall in love and have your first orgasm.

Perhaps that sounds too critical, but I can't help seeing the ideological design. I do like the film and its honest emotional appeal. As I said for The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), the last chapter of any war story is "coming home". This is one of the good ones for Vietnam.

Great performances all around. The leads are very fine. Bruce Dern is not a likable character in our story -- the husband as "other man" -- but his pain and confusion are moving.

Jon Voight is outstanding as a disabled vet in Hell who cleans up and gets back on track through -- as always -- the love of a good woman. In the end he becomes a mentor to others and shows a generosity of spirit that is above and beyond.

Casting Fonda as the military wife was pretty bold: she was perhaps the most hated woman in America because of her Vietnam activities. She does a bit of nudity but also has a body double.

In the popular game of "When did movies start doing...?" I now wonder when did women start getting oral sex in film? I'll have to pay more attention, but I think this was an early prominent example. That first orgasm, always a good one.

(A cruel person could do a mashup of that scene with the orgasmatron bit in Barbarella (1968)).

Rich 1960s soundtrack. I always think of a certain scene when I hear "Sympathy for the Devil". If you've seen it you know why. Quietly, in the background, during the big love scene: Neil Young's "Expecting to Fly".

Available on Blu-ray with an edited commentary track featuring Jon Voight, Bruce Dern, and cinematographer Haskell Wexler. It was recorded in 2001 just after 9/11.