“Coming Home” has aged well, contrary to my expectations.
In 1978, when the 60′s and the Vietnam war were fresh in memory, and the social and political allegory seemed strident. Now, the polemics are still there but we can stand clear and watch the story.
Jane Fonda is Sally Hyde, a woman who came of age in the early ’60′s and found her place in life as the wife of Bruce Dern’s Bob Hyde, a Marine officer itching for his chance to prove himself in the war. In the early scenes, she is chirpy, cheerful but somehow discontented. When Bob goes overseas, she works in a VA hospital and rooms with Penelope Millard’s Vi, a blue-collar chick who works in the hospital kitchen. Gradually, she gets with it, changing her hair and clothes, trying weed, and becoming daring. She meets Jon Voight’s Luke Martin, a paraplegic vet full of rage at the system that crippled him. She has a shy relationship with Luke that progresses to kisses and then to a steamy session of oral sex in which she has what is supposed to be her first orgasm. He liberates her from her repression and her sweet understanding tempers his anger.
Vi is shattered when her brother Billy (Robert Carradine) in the VA hospital with PTSD flips out and commits suicide in a memorable scene choreographed to the tune of “Sympathy for the Devil” by the Rolling Stones. Hyde comes home as damaged goods – a decorated hero, but unstable. The FBI have been spying on Luke and they tell Hyde about his wife’s affair. Bob becomes psychotic, and confronts Sally who calls Luke, who talks Hyde out of killing Sally. The movie ends a few hours or days later, with back and forth scenes of Hyde stripping out of his dress uniform and plunging into the Pacific, and Luke making an emotional speech to high school students urging them to see through the glamorization of war and to avoid his mistakes.
The story of Sally’s liberation from sexual repression is supposed to be an allegory of America’s transformation during the 60′s, conscience awakened by the Vietnam war, consciousness transformed by liberal attitudes to drugs, sex and marriage. It’s part of the myth of the greening of America. There is a related allegory about America’s relationship to its military forces. Sally realizes that she isn’t very happy with her husband. Sally grows away from Bob while he is overseas, and she rejects him because her values have changed, not because he comes home sick. The screenplay implies that Bob’s ultimate psychosis was latent in the military culture and his own choice to fight a war. Luke was also indoctrinated into a war-loving culture but gives it up for a peace-loving culture. He lives and gets the girl.
Someone is going to have to look at the collapse the myth of the 60′s as another stage in the evolution of the post-modern condition. The screenplay won an Oscar – which was in part Hollywood liberalism patting itself on the back.
The socio-political allegory has faded. What saves the movie and makes it memorable is the story of these people, through the trauma of war, injury, mental illness, disillusionment and death. Ashby’s restrained direction and strong performances by Fonda, Milford, Dern and Voight present a complex tragedy of pain, illness, grief, infatuation, infidelity and madness. Fonda is a naturally restrained actress, and she fit the part of the decent Sally very well. She doesn’t have sex with Luke as a political act. She does it because she likes him, he is needy, and she is in the moment (and what a reward she get for being daring). She pulls it off as a sincere woman, who believes that she is growing and progressing. She avoids looking too smug about the message of empowerment through sex. Voight’s performance made Luke human, pulling his anger and his grief into a mature character – overcoming a problematic script. A lesser actor would have given us two caricatures – the enraged radical, and the peace loving hippie. There is a very difficult scene where Luke confronts and calms Bob, who is waving a loaded assault rifle. One view of this scene is that hip Luke uses his hippie wisdom to achieve non-violent control of the situation. The other is that Bob responds to the human engagement and is able to control his rage and walk out. Voight manages to keep Luke human and vulnerable to overcome the vapid lines he has to say in this scene.
The sound track has aged well, with vintage hits by the Stones, Ritchie Haven, Big Brother and the Holding Company as a chorus and commentary on the characters, the story and state of the world.