Obviously any film about Viet Nam that stars Jane Fonda and Jon Voight is going to cause more than a few knees to jerk. Fondas embracing the enemy and Voights devout pacifism have both been well-documented, so there's no need to elaborate. Don't let this cause you to avoid this film. Many veterans were on hand for the filming, and they saw that they were taking part in something special. If they can draw a truce with Fonda, than you can as well. The opening scene sets a tone for the film that it never veers from. A group of disabled vets play pool, and directly confront each other over why they were there, and what it all means. Director Hal Ashby (RIP) pulls no punches here. These vets aren't scholars debating on MacNeil-Lehrer. They struggle with these questions. They don't have the fancy initials after their names that impress people so much. There just the real people that fought the war.
The rest of the film follows on this point. Special care goes into each character.
Voights Luke Martin went to war to impress girls and feed his titanic ego. Because Ashby and his writers (Waldo Salt, Robert C. Jones and Nancy Dowd) didn't back off on showing Luke's bad side, it makes his transformation. He becomes a better person, because he develops the strength to look inside himself.
Bruce Dern gives an excellent performance, as well, in what is probably the trickiest part. Derns Bob Hyde is GI all the way, but returns from his first combat detail in a state of turmoil. He sees the insanity first hand and, quite frankly, can't handle it. The nice thing here is that he's not simply disillusioned by the politics of the war, but more by war, itself. It's to this films credit, that they didn't have Dern return home and do an about face and start protesting. That story has been told. Instead, once again, we see a human being struggling to understand things that may be unknowable. What makes a man cut another man's ears off, and throw them in his knapsack? How are you supposed to feel, when your fellow soldiers are boiling the flesh off a human skull, so they can mount it on a stake?
Oddly enough, Fondas character, Sally Hyde, may be the least "political" character in the film. Sure, she sees injustices at the VA hospital and gets involved volunteering, but this is merely as a novice. She asks very rudimentary questions about why the vets are being ignored, but she asks as a sympathetic human being, not an activist. As she eventually expands her horizons, she changes from an officer's wife into a more mature woman. As this happens, she falls in love with Voight. Neither person really wants it to happen. Voight doesn't want to betray a fellow soldier. Fonda doesn't want to betray her loyal husband. No easy answer.
It's a shame that "Coming Home" occupies such a small niche in film history. It's a quiet, thoughtful film that patiently tells its story. It doesn't have a single battle scene, but it remains incredibly powerful. Robert Carradines breakdown while he plays his guitar and sings, is a scene that should be taught in film school. Just one moment in an incredible film.
Don't let this gem fade away.