I had just finished watching 12-count‘m 12 episodes of Showtime's Ray Donovan (the entire first season) the night before. I don’t know how I got started watching it—it’s definitely not my kind of show. But somehow it hooked and reeled me in, and I just couldn’t stop. I wanted—needed to watch the entire season before season two debuted. And some of the characters were just mesmerizing; among them, Jon Voight’s portrayal of ex-con and family patriarch, Mickey (Mick) Donovan.
When Saturday came around, and I had my usual weekend chores to do, I turned on the TV looking for something to watch while the wash was washing, the crock pot was crocking, and I was making my way through a large box of books and papers I hadn’t opened since I had packed it up in preparation for an upcoming move to my new home in 1991.
Surfing through the endless On-Demand options my cable service offers, I happened upon the 1978 film, Coming Home. Directed by Hal Ashby it was a three-star vehicle for Jane Fonda, Bruce Dern and Donovan’s Jon Voight.
I hadn’t seen the film since it was in theaters, but with Voight’s current work fresh in my mind, I was anxious to give it a second look, especially since enough time had gone by to sort out the underlying anti-war theme that would define Fonda’s life for decades. Both Fonda and Voight took home Oscars for their performances, and rightly so.
Voight is mesmerizing as Vietnam Vet and paraplegic Luke Martin, whom we meet in a VA hospital where he is frustrated by the limitations of his disability, the level of care given to him and his fellow veterans, the memories that haunt him, and a feeling of angst as he watches others signing up to fight a war he no longer believes in. Fonda is also excellent as Sally Hyde; a young wife, whose husband Bob (Bruce Dern) goes off to war, unprepared for the reality that awaits him.
The plot is as simple as it is complex: A husband is called to war. His wife finds comfort and purpose in volunteering at the base hospital. Stuff happens. The husband returns home. More stuff happens, and life, in one way or another, goes on.
Coming Home is hard to define, perhaps because it is, at its core, several things. It is, most certainly, a love story, though the depth of love within the film’s various relationships is more implied than spoken. It is also a story of how we, as human beings, often choose to look the other way when someone is in pain or in need, as long as it is not our someone. And it is, without question, an anti-war platform; set in 1968: a time when our young men were being drafted and recruited to fight in a war that had been raging since the early 1950s in a place many of us had never heard of until we joined the fight in earnest in 1961.
What Coming Home does, more than any motion picture I have seen about soldiers returning home from war—including the much lauded 1946 film, The Best Years of Our Lives is put a face on the thousands of men and women who return home from the battlefield in varying physical and emotional states, often left to their own devices, to figure out and patch together a future fraught with challenges. Vietnam vets, more than any other veterans I can think of, had an extra burden to bear, in that many people did not welcome them home with ticker tape parades, applaud their efforts, offer them jobs or help them regain some sort of normalcy in their lives.
The love scenes between Fonda and Voight in this movie are among the most tender and moving on film. And while it is, by anyone's description, an anti-war piece, one would hope that all these years later, those of you who will take the time to revisit it, will be better for it, with a renewed awareness and sense of compassion towards those who, by war, accident, birth, violence or quirk of fate, have to deal with more problems and challenges than any human being should have to deal with.
Bruce Dern’s character is perhaps the least appealing of the group, and one can only guess if the part was written that way, or if he was directed that way, or put his own spin on it. Dern tends to play less than sympathetic characters, so, who knows. He is, for me at least, the weakest link in the chain: good, but not up to Fonda and Voight’s work. His character’s outcome (which I realize he had no say in) was the only thing in this movie that didn’t ring true, although those who know far more about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder than I would be better qualified to comment on that.
I know that the film's subject matter might lead you to believe that it is a downer, and to be avoided at all costs. Admittedly, it’s not a light-hearted piece or musical, although it does boast a killer soundtrack featuring some of the era’s major tunes and artists, among them, the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, the Rolling Stones, Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix, Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, and Steppenwolf. But there are some truly lovely moments between Fonda and Voight, and when you look at it as a reflection of our recent history, it is so worth seeing; being just as relevant today as it was when it first came out some thirty-three years ago.
At the time, Voight had already come into his own, having starred in the 1969 career-making, award-winning film Midnight Cowboy, and 1972’s Deliverance. But according to several sources, he was not director Ashby’s first choice, joining the cast only after Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino and Sylvester Stallone had passed on the project-most likely because of its political nature.
Lucky for us that Voight took on the role. Whether you are unfamiliar with his work, remember him from his early movies or more recent fare, you owe it to yourself to see him in this film, as well as the afore-mentioned Ray Donovan. Having won an Emmy last year for his work in the series, he was just nominated again this past week for this year’s work. Watch the two pieces back-to-back will give you a good idea of his range and talent.
Produced by Fonda’s production company, and inspired by her friendship with a Vietnam vet who, like Voight’s character, was a paraplegic, Coming Home, unlike most of the films I feature here, was not a so-called "small" movie, garnering generally positive reviews, as well as a host of nominations and awards for its cast and crew. Knowing this, I suspect that many of you saw it when it was first released. But if, like me, you haven’t seen it since, it may be time for a second look.