Friday, November 11, 2005

Coming Home (1978)

A quick US at war summary
Decades long international political maneuvering prior to outright war which involves a particularly complicated region of the world that the average American doesn't understand and possibly couldn't point out on a map. Major air-bombing style warfare followed by 'peace talks' and withdrawals. Re-escalating problems years later. Another huge offensive mounted, costing the US billions, to little dissent within Congress. Major military casualties follow. A politically divided nation in which the heartland is pitted against the peace protestors. No end in sight.

Since you can't tell whether I'm talking about Vietnam circa 1968 or Iraq in 2005 and that strange Apocalypse Now / Jarhead duet is still playing in my head, we stay in the jungle / desert for another week.

Vietnam War themed pictures began to rise up almost immediately as that lengthy destructive war ended. The apex was in the late 70s when reflections on the cost of the war dominated the American psyche and consequently Hollywood mentality as well. The Deer Hunter won the Best Picture Oscar in March of 1979 and any major trophy it did not win went to its tiny counterpart, Coming Home.

So, we're not really staying in the jungles of Nam. We're returning to American soil just like the wounded soldiers in director Hal Ashby's quiet contemplative Vietnam film. It's a war picture with no combat scenes, no action, and no enemies. Instead it's the war at home or the aftermath of it; and a tiny slice of it at that. What's fascinating about this 1978 Oscar-winner is that it belongs to a school of films that seem to have all but vanished: the political as personal. Nowadays when political or war stories are told onscreen they have epic multi-narrative scope (Traffic, Syriana) or take place in the actual battleground (Three Kings, Saving Private Ryan, Jarhead). Rarely, if ever, are they content to look at the small picture, the simple human stories within the context of these global concerns.

Jon Voight, a major star of the 70s and better known as Angelina Jolie's dad these days, won the Oscar for his charismatic portrayal of an angry wheel-chair bound soldier haunted by battleground memories. His co-star Jane Fonda ( she once had quite the knack for finding herself in zeitgeist films) won her second Oscar. She plays a military wife whose husband has enthusiastically been shipped off to the jungle. While this star turn lacks the revelatory snap of her breakthrough dramatic work in They Shoot Horses, Don't They?(1969) or the complexity of her first Oscar winning role in Klute(1971), it's still a wonderful snapshot of a woman at a crossroads. The most incisive part of her portrayal is the way she handles the common but rarely dramatized way in which people are prone to approach difficult consequential personal changes. It's as if she is sleepwalking into them, as if surprised at faux-spontaneous decisions which she has, in fact, already made. Coming Home looks only at handful of people within the context of a polarizing war but its gaze is so tender and unforced that the politics, even when overt, seem to fall away. It's easy to be captivated by its compassionate humanity.


Anonymous said...

I'm sure this is a great movie! aka, It's not available in Australia



other aussies reading? Is Australia this bereft of ways in which to find older films? Even some mail order rental catalogues?

Javier Aldabalde said...

yes i find it strange. i live in uruguay which should be a lot tougher place to find old films, and yet there's still an entire organization (the Cinemateca = Cinematheque) that specializes in selling and renting old and new films from all over the world. very weird this is not the case in a country as advanced as australia.

par3182 said...

i just rented 'coming home' this week. it's available. and brilliant.

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