Powerfully acted and well told, 1978's COMING HOME is one of the best dramas of that era and an intelligent look at the impact of the Vietnam war.
Opening with an unscripted scene with real Vietnam vets in a VA hospital, they share their stories as one of them talks about his desire to go back. Paraplegic vet Luke Martin (Oscar winner Jon Voight for this role) voices his opposition, angrily motoring away down the hallway, face down on a stretcher and using canes to push himself around.
The polar opposite is Captain Bob Hyde (Bruce Dern at the peak of his 70's quirky madness) who cant WAIT to get to Vietnam and expresses excitement that he's finally getting his tour.
His wife Sally (Jane Fonda in her Oscar winning Best Actress performance) is dutiful, reserved and there to support Bob. As she says early in the film, "if the Marine Corps wanted you to have a wife, they would have assigned you one".
When Bob leaves for his tour, Sally begins to make life choices that build her confidence. A new car, a new apartment. She decides she wants to volunteer at the VA, where she meets Luke, realizing that they went to high school together.
Luke was captain of the football team, she was a cheerleader. That spark of the past and some sense of normalcy spurs a budding friendship.
Waldo Salt (Serpico) also won an Oscar for his screenplay and he earns one for taking these characters in realistic directions and never pandering to expectations.
Luke's growth from drugged, angry hospital patient to the man he is at the end of the film is powerful. Likewise, Sally's metamorphosis from obedient housewife to independent woman is powerful. Fonda's portrayal is nothing that you'd expect if you bring any real-life Fonda Vietnam baggage to the film with you. She's excellent. Fonda had been looking to make a Vietnam film and was inspired when she met real-life vet Ron Kovic, whose life was later portrayed by Tom Cruise in "Born On the Fourth of July". You can certainly see roots of Ron in Luke's character.
I loved the way that Sally never abandons Bob. A lesser film would have her writing him a Dear John letter, but Director Hal Ashby (Being There, Shampoo) never turns away from real life and the way these people have been impacted by the war.
Bruce Dern's scene near the end of the film talking about what's next with a loaded rifle in his hand is explosive. You feel what he's going through and have no idea what will happen next.
Voight and Fonda's relationship is so quietly told that you don't realize how caught up you are in their stories until the finale threatens everything they've built.
Voight's finale speech to a group of high school students about the choice in front of them to enlist is powerful, inspiring and heartbreaking. Voight starts the speech with quiet uncertainty and begins to find his voice, until the reality of what he's been through just pours out of him in a passionate plea for them to carefully consider the next step of their lives.
COMING HOME is one of the best Vietnam films ever made. Nominated for 8 Academy Awards in 1978, it still packs a punch today and gets an A.