If ’78 is often considered the Year of the Vietnam War Movie because of the box-office and awards-season battle between Coming Home and The Deer Hunter, it’s informative that there is comparatively little critical work involving Coming Home, whereas The Deer Hunter has graduated to the pantheon of the classics. And I am not the guy who is going to tell you that they are in the same league. But where The Deer Hunter excels by virtue of its epic storytelling, Coming Home takes a more intimate path, and it’s an ultimately rewarding journey.
Of course, Coming Home is a very different examination of Vietnam compared to The Deer Hunter. It’s less a war movie than a post-mortem of a war movie, examining the casualties of war without ever putting the viewer in country. Surprisingly, it’s a film about relationships, and the ability (or inability) of veterans and their loved ones to communicate in the wake of the war. There’s an interesting, magnetic polarity at work; as Sally finds herself jaded by successive degrees as she comes to terms with the reality of the war, Luke is lifted out of the morass of post-war apathy and depression by Sally. Indeed, the film is most effective when it follows their uneasy intimacy to unexpected places. When Luke and Sally consummate their love, we are talked through the involved minutiae of have sex with a paraplegic man, which for me was the unquestioned emotional apex of the film. If anything, the difficulties begin here, since this moment of catharsis is only at the movie’s halfway point.
Where the film falters is in its extreme inconsistency of tone. There are quite a few moments of comic relief, but where one may succeed in easing the audience’s tension, the next may be simply jarring. The speed with which Sally seems to abandon her fervent love for Bob is also a bit difficult to swallow, the obvious physical attraction of Jon Voight over Bruce Dern notwithstanding. Why does she so spontaneously take up with an abusive disabled man immediately in the absence of her naive but much-loved husband? That Sally shows charity to a stranger from high school and not her husband despite the fact that both have been seriously wounded in battle (even if one is a physical disability and the other mental) seriously undermines the film’s message about America’s social responsibility for our veterans.
Still, Coming Home is amazingly complex in its portrayal of the variety of veteran experiences, and the three capital-letter Powerhouse Performances from Voight, Dern and Jane Fonda are unforgettable. The soundtrack is stunning, not simply because of its scope (Dylan, The Stones, The Beatles, Hendrix, Simon & Garfunkel) but because of the filmmakers’ ingenious use of these songs to heighten emotions and accent moments while shifting in and out of background and diagesis. There is a whole paper just waiting to be written about the use of music in this film! But I digress; my review grows long!
Though comparisons are inevitable, I left Coming Home with a hesitancy to hold it to the same standards as The Deer Hunter. Both are invaluable documents of wartime experience, and both feel uncomfortably urgent as the Iraq War extends off into infinity. Coming Home may have structural problems and a messy emotional arc, but it manages to stay on the rails and deliver an eloquent examination of the personal costs of war.