Before viewing Coming Home, I expected it to be a political and social commentary on the Vietnam War. But Coming Home presents an array of problems with American life generally—not just with war. From marriage to patriotism, this flick uses emotion to drive its thesis: that Americans should do a better job of questioning reality.
The first is the idea of the perfect husband and wife. Characters (and presumably, Americans) seem to feel like a perfect marriage is both required and exhaustingly unattainable. Several times at the beginning of the film characters make reference to Sally Hyde as “the captain’s wife,” with an intonation of simultaneous envy and disgust. Luke Martin is particularly harsh toward Sally at the beginning of the movie, though toward the end he is a stalwart supporter of Sally, both in her independence and in her attempt to revitalize her relationship with her husband; he understands her situation and motivations. After the compelling sex scene between Sally and Luke, Sally reveals that Luke has just given her her first orgasm. This doesn’t speak well of the traditional American marriage at that time. A man paralyzed from the waist down gets a woman off the first time he’s with her; whereas, her fully-abled husband couldn’t provide that sort of intimacy in the decades that they had been together. It’s striking. It’s almost as if these people have to be broken (whether physically or emotionally) to let their guard down enough so that they really need pleasure and seek it out in the open and productive way that actually leads to comfort and, well, orgasm.
The marriage problem also translates to a problem of sexism, which leads also to a problem of masculine insecurity. Several times throughout the film, Sally and Bob talk about how Bob doesn’t want Sally to work. If Sally worked, Bob would feel like his masculinity, his motivation for being the perfect military man, would be negated. In the scene when Bob and Sally Hyde see each other for the first time since Bob is sent home, they relate in a very telling way by talking to each other through a chain-link fence, while walking toward the gate. Though they can see each other, there is a meshy barrier between them, preventing that previously discussed intimacy from being realized. Also, they are moving, like they’ve been moving through life. It’s like they’ve been so busy moving toward a goal, toward perfection, toward being a good couple, that they haven’t had a chance to just stop and BE together, to just touch each other and look at each other. Getting caught up in the idea of their life together has masked the sadness of the reality of their unfulfilling life together.
Coming Home also effortlessly takes on the problem of patriotism in the United States. There are seemingly endless references to the inhumanity of the American soldiers—of their turning people into “gooks” and ears used to make necklaces and heads on poles to intimidate the V.C. But all these images are less compelling than one of my favorite scenes in the film; it features a man reading his speech about “What July 4th Means to Me” in what seems like a voiceover while we watch group after group of crippled soldiers in wheelchairs interacting, playing games, just hanging out, trying to find joy in what remains of their lives. Is patriotism an end in itself? I feel like patriotism and religion fill the same hole in people’s lives, but it takes paralysis or death for a person to realize that the hole can’t really ever be filled. How does it help to believe in god and/or country when you’re dead or broken? It simply doesn’t.
Coming Home protests. It says, “Think about how your life really is, not about some ideal that’s ultimately unattainable, and even if attainable, unfulfilling.” I think it’s a pretty noble message.