Coming Home (1978) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)
Tagline: A man who believed in war! A man who believed in nothing! And a woman who believed in both of them!
Kind of a sensationalistic marketing ploy for a movie once considered to be an Oscar-worthy serious movie, isn't it?.
Sometimes when you look back on the pictures that you once considered great, they still seem great. This one is an exception. Memory fails, but I think I liked it a lot back then. Not any more. Now it's just a film for you old geezers who are sick of David Lynch and The Coen Brothers, and want to bring back warm memories of the films of your youth.
I guess people liked it at one time because they passionately agreed with its one-dimensional point of view. I suppose that's why I once liked it as well, but I don't have any passion left for the subject matter, or even nostalgia. Without passionate agreement to support the film, there's nothing left but poor lighting, bad sound, fourth-rate acting (except for Jon Voight), cardboard characters, and simplistic politics. In fact, stripped away from its cultural context, it is actually a poor movie and you should avoid it unless it touches you directly and you can somehow relate to the events portrayed.
Director Hal Ashby has acquired a certain cachet of having been martyred to the Hollywood system, but in fact he is wildly overrated. He never did master most of the elements of being a director. He wasn't a take-charge kind of guy, but a laid-back hippie doper. (He is legendary for the fact that he chain-smoked dope, and was never seen without a joint in his mouth, as if it were a Lucky Strike, and he were Sam Spade.) Gentle soul that he was, he would never fire or criticize an actor or technician, or provoke a clash on the set. He figured he'd just shoot what he could get, ignore the problems, then fix it all in the editing room. Fortunately, he was a brilliant film editor (In The Heat of the Night, e.g.) who did his own editing when he became a director. He had a talent for taking a bunch of film snippets and putting them together in a way that seemed coherent and powerful, in the process losing the most artificial moments. The trick to being an editor is to know things like when a reaction shot works better than the face of the speaker, or when the speaker's words can be faded out to hear the muscial soundtrack, or other similar issues. Ashby's editing pulled Coming Home out of the barrel. When they finished filming Voight's speech in the high school, the sound man, Jeff Wexler, said:
Even though Director Ashby didn't know what to film, Editor Ashby knew what to cut, and by the time he was finished, Voight's stirring speechifying won him an Oscar. Frankly, it isn't much good as cinema, but it is effective oratory. Your reaction to it will depend on your passion for the subject matter and your opinion about long monologues. The last monologue I liked began with "to be or not to be", so I find that scene with Voight's speech to be as boring as any famous scene in cinema history. The thing that might save it for you is if you're really tuned into the same point of view, and are moved by hearing your own thoughts articulated so eloquently. In fact, the entire speech is actually nothing more than an excuse for the author to deliver his own monologue about Vietnam, disguised as the character speaking. I was not only bored silly with that, but I was bored with the entire film, which is basically all windy monologues. There are exchanges of dialogue, of course, but those discussions don't sound like real people talking to each other. The exchanges always seem to represent one person waiting for a turn to speak while another orates, then delivering his own prepared speech.
In my view, high school oratory contests are not especially good spectator events.
The Voight character, a veteran opposing the war, is fairly accurately shaped, but that's because Ashby really understood that character and the entire anti-war position. On the other hand, the Bruce Dern character, a gung-ho soldier, seems to have been born on another planet. Although a dedicated military guy, he had a wild haircut, long sideburns, he was out of shape (damn those nude scenes!), and his speech and manner were so clearly psychotic that he would have been deemed unfit for janitorial duty, let alone combat.
And that was before the war messed him up!
Pauline Kael wrote in her contemporary review:
Jane Fonda plays the wife of a captain (Dern). He's away in 'Nam most of the film, and she has no life, so she volunteers to work in the local base hospital and ends up falling in love with a bitter paraplegic sergeant (Jon Voight) who is rehabilitating from his own 'nam experience. As always happens in movies, Voight is a crotchety and bitter man at the beginning, but by the end he is giving kids rides on his wheelchair and rescuing lost puppies. He is able to grow as a man because he hates the war. Of course, only those who hate the war can please a woman sexually, even if they have no working naughty bits, because they are warm, loving, right-thinking, life-embracing people who want to make love, not war.
Dern, on the other hand, commits suicide. He must deteriorate as a man because he loves the war and wants to be a hero.
Your question is this, kids. Do you think the movie is for or against the war?
The film takes a decided stance about what was right and wrong, and it just keeps talkin' and talkin' about it ad nauseum. In my life I have already spent altogether too much time on this, and I really don't want to listen to any more lectures on the subject. I basically agree with the film's position, but that doesn't keep me from tiring of the windbag speeches.
For the record, the film opposes the war for all the wrong reasons - not because there is anything wrong with the politics or strategic logic of it, but because America's boys are coming home maimed. But boys always come home maimed from war. From every war. Many of them don't come home at all. What about WW2? The American military establishment was the same then, and the same exaggerations could have been made. Boys also came home from France without their legs. In the 20 years between WW2 and Vietnam, the army didn't get crazier, the hawks didn't get hawkier, the generals didn't get any more obsessive (you think Patton was sane?). War is hell. It messes up the people who fight in it. Sure, comin' home from Vietnam without legs was hell. The same was true of the Civil War, WW2, the Gulf War, etc. You can't measure a war by whether good boys from Iowa farms get hurt, and whether generals are crazy. Those things never change.
The real question about any war is whether that hell is necessary.
But the film barely touches on this.
The same logic applied in this film would also cause the filmmakers to be against WW2.
What made Vietnam different from WW2 for returning veterans was the public reaction. The kids who were wounded in WW2 came home to a hero's welcome and thus the feeling that they did what they had to do for the world. They were probably just as deeply damaged emotionally, but they had a societal support mechanism which reinforced the fact that they lost their legs for a reason. Vietnam was different. The same kids from Iowa, a generation later, came home to find out that they were considered baby-killers and imperialist puppets. Our great failing as a society was that we never found a way to honor the courage and sacrifice of our sons and brothers while we were condemning the war they fought in.
The film does have some value as a time capsule. At the time of the Vietnam War, Americans had a different attitude toward issues like woman's sexuality, female equality, disagreement with authority, etc. It is interesting for me to watch this film and be reminded about how there was once controversy about so many things we now take for granted. It is good to be reminded, for example, that women weren't supposed to be concerned about orgasms, and that Nixon used to keep an "enemies list", and that the FBI used to keep extensive files on people who disagreed with the administration.
But it isn't that realistic. Again, it is unrealistically one-sided.
I guess I thought that was a virtue when I was passionate about agreeing with that side. Now I just find it exaggerated and false.
|For example, the film laughably has two FBI agents assigned pretty much full-time to shadow Voight, a guy who has no public recognition like the Chicago 7, and is only a moderate dissenter by the standards of the time. In reality, the feds didn't have enough manpower to assign that kind of surveillance to Abbie Fuckin' Hoffman, who disappeared from under their noses, as you may remember. Given the fact that about half of the adults in the country were more radical than Voight, the FBI would have had to hire the other half and the children to keep tabs on them!||
Not only that, but the FBI guys were wandering around
doing their surveillance while wearing cheap suits in warm weather.
Gee, do you think anybody in 1969 would have suspected they were federal agents?
This is one of the most poorly acted major movies. Voight did OK, as always, and almost managed to make greatness out of the pontifical speeches he was asked to render, but Fonda and Dern were utterly unconvincing. Fonda was artificial. She sounds like she is reciting lines in a high school speech contest, and I don't think I ever found her credible for a moment. It's difficult to believe that this passed for acting only a quarter of a century ago. Dern was nominated for an Oscar, but the less said about his performance the better. I was embarrassed for him. Perhaps we can blame him, perhaps we should blame the author of his impossible dialogue.
Of course, the film is not without its moments, but the main reason why it was nominated for Best Picture is that it was riding the Zeitgeist.
I did enjoy the musical score of the Vietnam-era hits from Richie Havens, Paul Simon, the Rolling Stones, the Jefferson Airplane, and others.
But that just fuels my own personal need for nostalgia. I'm not one of those old geezers who misses the films of my youth, but I do miss the music.
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