Coming Home (1978, Hal Ashby)

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Coming Home is the biggest, most prestigious of the films Hal Ashby made in the ’70s; Ashby lives in the collective imagination largely because of his cult classic Harold and Maude. The backgrounds and concepts of the two films couldn’t be farther apart; Harold and Maude is about a death-obsessed teenage boy in love with a much older woman, Coming Home is about a volunteer nurse who falls in love with an injured soldier just after her own husband has gone off to war in Vietnam. To most of us, the former likely sounds more interesting than the latter, which sounds pat and flowery. In Ashby’s hands, each premise is far more politically charged than one would naturally expect, and it says a lot about him that they both visibly come from the same soul. It’s also telling how much more accomplished and effectively communicative a film Coming Home is than its predecessor — that’s the growth of a true filmmaker in action. The result is essential if only as an antidote to the conservative, macho, racist The Deer Hunter, released the same year.

Ashby was always best at extremely naturalistic scenes with slow-paced camerawork and this only sporadically lets him show off, but it’s reflective of his strongest sensibilities in a way that threatens at times to make it feel unbearably dated (like, did the guy just leave his Rolling Stones tapes playing in the editing room or what?) yet finally serve to gather up strands and evidence of the time in which the story is set, separated by only a few years from the time of production, with a cumulative sense of truth setting in. Ashby’s resistance to simplicity is head-spinning, right up to the ambivalent but rousing conclusion — the stunning moment when, after listening to the bullshit spewed by a recruiter, Jon Voight gives his antidote to a gymnasium full of high school kids and cuts like a knife through their illusions. Ashby uses humor and a startling awareness of cinema in relation to reality in telling his story, and he reels us in with the intelligence that drove The Last Detail and, later, Being There. The sobering humanity of the characters does not just come out in their moments of sorrow: even the movie’s sex scene, between wheelchair-bound Voight and agile Jane Fonda, is smart and original.

Coming Home‘s sincerity and rightness come through primarily because of Jon Voight’s understated, sensitive performance as Luke, which is so much more humane and complicated than the most immediate available comparison, Tom Cruise’s work in Born on the Fourth of July. (In that film, Cruise straightforwardly portrays Ron Kovic, who inspired Fonda to get the production of this project off the ground in an effort to shed light on veteran activists.) There is a natural, unchecked grace to Voight’s work that helps the sometimes cartoonish performance by Bruce Dern — who plays an unmitigated asshole, lazy writing that’s hard to excuse in a film so widely praised for its screenplay — pass by without too much consternation.

Jane Fonda is the center of the picture as the conflicted, initially sheltered war bride Sally; the character is somewhat underwritten to start with, and she could easily seem thin and uncertain next to her costar. Fonda is indeed ordinarily one of my least favorite famous actors; I was recently reminded of this when I struggled through the horrendous Julia. But she acquits herself well through most of this, with only a few of her melodramatic florishes. So Dern, who’s normally such a treat, is the only drag and I think it’s strictly because of the script. The film builds to one of the most lurching, uncomfortable endings ever: on the one hand, the domestic drama to which it naturally builds — a big drag-out confrontation between all three parties in the love triangle — would be riveting if Dern’s Bob made any sense as a character and not just a stereotype of sub-SSgt. Barry Sadler on a squashed-ego trip, but instead it’s just strange. On the other hand, that speech Voight gives at the high school — by far the film’s most famous moment, and maybe the one thing for which anyone remembers it now — is bone-chilling beautiful on the order of Lew Ayres’ outburst near the end of All Quiet on the Western Front. If only more of the film invited such lofty comparisons; Ashby was more than capable.

And the best evidence is one telling moment that may actually be the best scene in the film — it’s certainly, along with the opening argument and the slow pan around the auditorium, the most distinctly Ashby-esque. Sally has taken her grieving friend Vi (Penelope Milford, whose performance is the finest here aside from Voight’s) out for drinks and they get picked up by a couple of bumbling commoners. Vi starts to teach the boys how to go-go to the tune of Aretha Franklin’s “Save Me” before she suddenly breaks down. It’s raw, it’s painful, it’s oddly humorous and awkward, and it feels so horribly real — and for some strange reason, it captures something about America during and after Vietnam that I’ve never quite seen visually or verbally articulated before. It all comes down to simple grief; I’d liken it to Randy Quaid’s resignation at the close of The Last Detail. Maybe that was Ashby’s great gift after all: showing real, decent people finally lose their defenses, their fight. So while this invites no catch-all comparison to the elegance or yearning truth of The Best Years of Our Lives, the best film of this type ever made, it does at least approach its emotional depth and accuracy in that one awful, gorgeous moment.

[Some portions originally posted in 2005.]

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