Friday, 14 November 2014

Coming Home (1978)

Coming Home was star Jane Fonda's pet project. 'Hanoi Jane' had formed a close friendship with paraplegic Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic after meeting him at an anti-war rally and believed rightly that his story should be told. Indeed it would be told twice; firstly with this loose biography of his life, and later with Oliver Stone's Born On The Fourth of July. But Fonda was interested in more than just Kovic's disability and she hired feminist writer Nancy Dowd to produce a screenplay that also considered the war from a military wives POV. It took six years and work from scriptwriters Waldo Salt and Robert C Jones to knock Coming Home into shape. 

The film is directed by that unsung and somewhat offbeat hero of 70s cinema, Hal Ashby. This was the director's second 60s set film after 1975's Warren Beatty/Julie Christie vehicle Shampoo. Comparing the two films sees Ashby come pleasingly full circle; Shampoo was about the beautiful people, the bimbos and himbos who preoccupied themselves with everything but the Vietnam War, whilst Coming Home is all about people's growing realisation of what conflict actually means. It's a film with very strong performances from both Fonda and Voight; they both commence the film as people with experience of the military (Marine officer's wife and recently wounded soldier respectively) but through their experiences as the film progresses their understanding of war deepens, adapts and changes either through their illicit romance which is sensitively and maturely handled or through their links with the military hospital they volunteer/have been treated at. For Fonda, it's a satisfying wake up call taking her from the Barbie doll range of military wife to a woman in her own right. For Voight it's an equally satisfying channeling of the misplaced anger he is clearly shown to possess in the film's opening scenes into the anti-war movement.

It's also worth mentioning Bruce Dern as Fonda's Marine husband. If you cut him he'd have USA written through him like a stick of Blackpool rock. Dern nicely subverts his sadistic and tough screen persona to give us a depiction of a man who is tough and sadistic because his job expects him to be. It's a taut and cool performance which equally has a journey, though in keeping him on the sidelines as is necessary, it is perhaps a less clear, explored one.

The film handles the fallout of war and the physical and mental impairments it produces in the young men sent off to fight with humanity and honesty and never once steps into the offensively sentimental or mawkish waters it so easily could have been submerged in.

Watching it now, one can't help but feel divided by Ashby's use of soundtrack. It's an incredibly spot on and enjoyable mix, featuring the kind of artists one expects to hear in a 'Nam movie (The Stones, Jefferson Airplane and Buffalo Springfield etc) but by appearing under virtually every other scene it can feel a little jukebox intrusive and somewhat like 'NOW THAT'S WHAT I CALL THE TET OFFENSIVE! #4' The thing is it's important to remember that what is viewed as a cliched, stereotypical and expected trope now was much more original back in 1978; Ashby was one of the first directors who incorporated the music of the day with the subject of the Vietnam War. With that in mind you have to appreciate the eclectic mix that has shaped all other movies in this genre and our expectations since.

Coming Home is an important movie that addresses the after effects of war; something that is still all too rarely shown.

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