The year is 1968 and on this U.S. Army base there is a hospital for injured and disabled soldiers who have fallen victim to the Vietnam War. Sally Hyde (Jane Fonda) is one of the wives of a newly promoted major, Bob Hyde (Bruce Dern), who is to be shipped off to the Far East for a tour of duty, and though she loves him, she has reservations about waving him off, not least because without him she is stuck on the base with no reason to do anything without her husband. At the leaving terminal, she gets to chatting to another wife, Vi (Penelope Milford), who invites her over for a drink to cope, and once there they begin chatting about the veterans' hospital, which gives Sally an idea...
Back in 1979, Coming Home was up against Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter for the Best Picture Oscar, which was regarded as significant since they were both concerned with the Vietnam War, still a raw wound in the psyche of the American public. Cimino won for his by turns groaningly sincere and symbolic and way over the top cartoonish epic, while the quieter effort had to make do with an Oscar for Jon Voight, playing the man in the love triangle with Fonda's character. His Luke Martin can be seen as yet another instance of the Academy giving a gong to a performer essaying a disability, which was always a surefire winner until people started to question the practice.
We will never know if there was a disabled actor around at the time who could have done just as well as Voight - Marlee Matlin, a deaf actress, won for Children of a Lesser God a few years later, but who remembers that film? By the end of the eighties it was business as usual with Dustin Hoffman winning for Rain Man and his co-star Tom Cruise nominated for Born on the Fourth of July, playing the man Luke was based on, but as most leading men and women like a challenge, it was only understandable that able-bodied thesps be up for portraying someone with some form of mental or physical drawback, after all, the essence of acting is to pretend to be somebody else, isn't it?
Such matters were not important back in the late seventies, as the more pressing question was whether either big Nam picture was doing justice to their subject. While The Deer Hunter appealed more to war movie buffs, Coming Home featured no combat whatsoever, which left it accused of being at best a soap opera, and at worst a pale shadow of the benchmark work in this subgenre, the World War II aftermath drama The Best Years of Our Lives. While there were certainly tugs on the heartstrings here, it was by no means as schmaltzy as its detractors would claim, it did not soft pedal the problems of the war vets who were now suffering as if the country were embarrassed by them and wanted to hide them away in institutions rather than admit they were the product of a severely misjudged conflict.
There was no getting away from the fact it was a romance as well as a social issue yarn, and this enraged the result's most vocal critic Nancy Dowd, for she had penned the original script to be as hardhitting as possible, only to see it rewritten to make the love affair not only more tender, but the main focus of the piece. You can admit she had a point, and casting Bruce Dern as the hawkish officer who doesn't get the war he was expecting was a double-edged sword, yes, he was terrific at acting hurt and bewildered, vital for his big scene near the end, but he had also established his career playing a bunch of crazies and you find yourself waiting for him to explode. On the other hand, there was an inclusive hand held out to the veterans, there was no victim shaming or blaming here, and though director Hal Ashby overdid it with the jukebox soundtrack, he had obvious compassion for these men and that did matter. A lower key effort than The Deer Hunter, but it got to grips with the consequences of the war far more satisfactorily and doubled as Fonda's olive branch to the America she had offended as a one-time radical.
[Eureka's Blu-ray of this title looks and sounds tip-top, and has the following features:
1080p transfer of the film on Blu-ray
Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing
Brand new and exclusive audio commentary by author Scott Harrison
Feature-length commentary with actors Jon Voight, Bruce Dern, and cinematographer Haskell Wexler
Coming Back Home [25 mins] archival featurette
Man Out of Time [15 mins] archival featurette
PLUS: a collector's booklet featuring new writing on the film by author Scott Harrison and critic Glenn Kenny.]
Cult American director who started out as an editor, notably on such works as The Loved One, In the Heat of the Night (for which he won an Oscar) and The Thomas Crown Affair. Thanks to his friendship with Norman Jewison he was able to direct his first film, The Landlord, and the seventies represented the golden years of his career with his sympathetic but slightly empty dramas striking a chord with audiences. His films from this period were Harold and Maude, The Last Detail, Shampoo, Bound for Glory, Coming Home and Being There. But come the eighties, Ashby's eccentricities and drug dependency sabotaged his career, and he ended it directing a forgotten TV movie before his untimely death from cancer.