Sunday, May 27, 2018

Coming Home

SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.
Since we are observing Memorial Day this weekend, it seems appropriate to discuss this Academy Award winning 1978 film that examines the physical and psychological challenges that war veterans encounter. Although it takes place in 1968 during the height of the increasingly unpopular Vietnam War, the personal battles that the characters wage exist for many soldiers and those they love no matter the conflict. “Coming home” should be a happy occasion, but not for those damaged by the ravages of war. The strength of this movie is in not turning it into a vehicle for just an angry argument against the Vietnam War, but instead distilling the conflict’s impact by focusing its effects on the lives of a few people.

Director Hal Ashby and his cinematographer Haskell Wexler many times used long lenses so as not to intrude on the actors’ performances in order to increase the genuineness of what they were experiencing in their roles. There is a great deal of background sound left in to lend certain scenes a documentary feel. The California VA hospital patients shown at the beginning of the film are actual disabled veterans, and what they have to say about whether they would do it all again to fight for freedom, or question the validity of the war is in their own words.
That opening scene is in contrast to the one that follows as we cut from soldiers now confined to wheelchairs to one of Captain Bob Hyde (Bruce Dern) jogging, still able to use his legs, but who can become the next victim as long as wars continue to be fought. The soundtrack is full of 1960’s music, and the song we hear at this point is one by the Rolling Stones. The lyrics speak of being “out of touch” and “out of time,” perhaps an observation about Dern’s Marine, and possibly the country as a whole, as the war drags on with no end in sight and the body counts continue to rise.

Bob talks with his military friend, Dink Mobley (Robert Ginty), as they prepare on the firing rage for their tour in Vietnam. They say they are ready for battle, but it is only practice not based on the realities of the guerilla war they will face. Dink says his girlfriend, Vi (Penelope Milford) doesn’t like the military life. Bob, in a condescending although accurate comment, says that his wife, Sally (Jane Fonda, winning her second Best Actress Oscar for this role), doesn’t understand the war, but is supportive. We then have a scene at the Officer’s Club where Bob and Sally are having drinks with a fellow officer and his wife. Although the first response to Bob may be to think of him as the antagonist in this story, he really is a tragic figure who should be viewed with understanding. He has, as many other young men, been brought up with a macho-infused version of patriotism. He says that he is excited about his upcoming time in Vietnam. He feels nervous in the way an athlete anticipates proving himself by competing in the Olympics, which is such a naive comparison, since losing the contest in war may mean the loss of one’s legs, or life. His officer friend encourages this gung ho feeling by falsely presenting the situation in Vietnam as winnable, saying the enemy made a last ditch effort in the Tet Offensive, and can now be defeated. The wife of the other officer leans over to Sally and says that Bob is very sexy. She embodies the traditional male-dominant view that a man capable of violence is an attractive one. The commanding officer is not there to give Bob and his fellow soldiers an inspiring visit, and he sends his wife instead. She says that night is the evening he plays chess. That is the extent of his combat vulnerability - a board game, while he sends his men into true peril.

The night before he is to leave, Sally and Bob have sex. She is seen on her back, uninvolved in the lovemaking, the satisfaction on her face reflecting what she considers is her role, to provide pleasure for her husband. It is her duty, as he goes off to do his. In the car when they say goodbye, she continues to play the traditional wife, admitting to being afraid for him, but wanting him to know that she is proud of what he doing. She gives him a wedding ring as a gift (not sure why he doesn’t already have one), and she says that he’ll probably take it off at his first liberty. He promises that he will never take the ring off. His vow is an ironic one tinged with foreshadowing given what will happen later.

Sally meets Vi when the two say goodbye to their men, and eventually form a friendship out of their loneliness. (Sally lived on the military base, but as soon as Bob is deployed, she must vacate the residence. This fact does not present the military as caring for the families of its soldiers). The two women initially go to Vi’s place. It is late, and in 1968, television broadcasting ended the day with a shot of the American flag and the music from the national anthem. There is a nostalgic patriotic aspect to the ritual, which does not feel pertinent currently given the heartbreak of the Vietnam War. It is a signing off event, implying that the idealistic perception of what America stood for was also fading away. To add to this feeling, there is a flag hanging across the stair railing, perhaps suggesting the way a flag is draped over a coffin, adding a sense of dread to the scene. (There are references during the movie of what a scary time it was, as we see on TV Robert Kennedy speaking about the recent assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., and we hear of Kennedy’s shooting death a couple of months later. There is a bumper sticker on a car saying about America, “Love it, or leave it,” informing us that fifty years ago, like now, the country was deeply divided between those supporting those in power, and those protesting against it).

Vi is more rebellious than Sally, whose appearance is very conservative. Vi wears short skirts, smokes weed, and does not want to go to the Officer’s Club. She not only lives there because of Dink, but also works as a nutritionist at the local VA hospital, where her Veteran brother, Bill (Robert Carradine) is a psychiatric patient, suffering from what we now would diagnose as post-traumatic stress disorder, due to his Vietnam service. Bill says he uses smile therapy to get by, but his sad situation is an ironic contrast to this lame treatment. Vi says sarcastically to Sally that her brother, who is on various drugs, is a model of modern medicine, as The Jefferson Airplane’s Grace Slick in the background sings the song “White Rabbit,” which talks about how “one pill makes you larger/And one pill makes you small.”
Luke Martin, (Jon Voight, winner of a Best Actor Oscar for this role), is an ex-Marine who is also a patient at the VA hospital. In psychological ways, Bob is the “before” picture, and Luke is the “after” one of the military man prior to and after the experience of being in a war zone. Luke is paralyzed from the waist down, and gets around the ward by propelling the gurney on which he is stretched out with a pair of canes. He is angry because the orderly has not washed him and his urine bag is full, and needs emptying. The film does not allow us to turn away from the uncomfortable aspects of the lives of the wounded, but instead forces the audience to confront the terrible consequences of sending people off to war. The orderly then says that the staff is short-handed, which indicts the government for not taking care of those they put in harm’s way. The hospital employee then complains that he and his wife together don’t earn the amount of money Luke is receiving in disability benefits. Would he be willing to give up the use of his legs and sexual and urinary functions for a bigger check amount?
Sally has decided to volunteer at the VA hospital. In one of the more embarrassing initial encounters depicted between a man and a woman, Sally accidentally bumps into Luke’s gurney, spilling the contests of his urine bag. Luke is so angry at the degrading incident, he lashes out at the hospital staff, wielding one of the canes, smashing objects round him. He is sedated and put in restraints, so now, in addition to his legs, the hospital has compounded Luke’s situation by not allowing him to use his hands. He must endure the humiliation of being fed, like a baby.

Sally begins to realize who she really is separate from her husband. She admits to Vi that volunteering at the hospital is not something of which Bob would approve. After her car breaks down, she buys a sporty vehicle. She also rents out a house near the beach, a move she was not supposed to make without her husband. She admits to Vi that it is the first time Sally hasn’t been in military housing as an adult. For her, and everyone else in this period, the times, they are a’changing. (As the two carry boxes to Sally’s new residence, young boys in backyards carry toy guns, which, given the devastation of war occurring daily, reminds us of how children grow up with violence, playing with it as if it is one of their siblings).
Sally finds her high school yearbook in one of her moving boxes. She was no rebel there, being a cheerleader, and in answer to the question what would she want if stranded on an island she responded, “a husband.” Not just a man, but someone who would fill the role of what society dictated a girl should desire. She remembers that Luke attended the same high school. He was on the road to becoming what was expected of him. He was the captain of the football team, someone she, a female on the sidelines, not a participant in the game, would urge on to greatness. Only thinking about himself, he said on that island he would want “a mirror,” a reference to his egotistical appreciation of his good looks. But, the war intervened, and society’s new marching orders were for him to fulfill his patriotic duty. That changed him, and tangentially the war is changing Sally’s life.
Sally goes into Luke’s room and tells him that they went to the same school. He mixes bitterness with humor. He tells her “I would salute you,” but his arms are tied up. Sally’s pre-marriage name was “Bender,” and he jokes that they used to call her “Bender over,” which adds a sexual connotation to their conversation. He almost gets her to undo his restraints, but staff workers enter his room. He tells her that she “almost got a gold star,” which is playful, but implies he thinks Sally’s volunteering is like a school assignment to her.  But her experience as a cheerleader is actually valuable as she knows how to help those in need of support to overcome loss. At this point he just uses his dark humor to cope, saying, after losing the restraints, “I can crawl again,” and when he bumps into another patient, says, “Ken, I thought you died Wednesday, man.”

The next time Luke is with Sally he is in a nasty mood. He tells her that she probably hangs out with the cripples so she can talk about it over martini’s with the other wives at the officer’s club. Or, her coldly says that maybe she is there to get used to the idea of having her husband come back in a body bag. But, Sally is learning about the plight of the veterans at the hospital. One patient she wheels around tells her that there is no system in place to help returning disabled soldiers to transition back into society. They don’t know how to deal with their disabilities (including those that interfere with their sexual functioning), or earn a living. Sally approaches the wives of the other officers to get them to use their newsletter to publicize the need for more more supplies and help at the VA hospital. She wants photos and interviews of the patients published. But, it’s too upsetting to the women who want to remain in denial about what is happening to the men, and could happen to their husbands. They just want to print activity announcements and military base gossip to take the soldiers’ minds off the war.
Back at the VA hospital, Sally is now changing into an angry activist, venting to the patients about how smug and uncaring the wives were. Luke tells her, “You’re beautiful when you’re excited,” which adds to the element of sexual interest between them. She shoots a quick, interested glance at his almost naked form in the medical center’s swimming pool followed by a shameful look because of her interest. She no longer irons her hair, and now sports a wildly curly appearance, which may indicate the change in her character from a “straight” traditional person to a complicated, unconventional one. She encounters Luke who is now in a wheelchair. He notices her hair and says he likes it, showing approval for the change in her, which he has facilitated. She invites him to dinner, and he is also changing, feeling more positive, which reflects her influence on him. While the soundtrack plays the Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” we see Luke’s strong muscles pulling himself up a ramp, the song’s lyrics reflecting his energized, obstacle-defying feelings.
A July 4th observance with patriotic speeches is intercut with Luke and his veteran buddies playing a kind of special Olympics game of wheelchair football, which shows how military zeal can lead to devastating consequences. Luke, who was the football captain in high school, must now play the game in the chair. But, these men are having a good time, which shows their resilience, and possibly Luke’s journey toward moving on with his life. Luke wears a jacket that contains the Marine motto, “Semper Fi,” which means “Always faithful,” which can show that he feels that his faith may have been misplaced. The jacket also has “Hero” written on it, and as we hear in the final speech of the movie, Luke wanted to be a hero in battle, but his heroics are more in evidence by the way he has endured the aftermath of his service, and how he is there for others. We witness his moving away from his own bitterness by consoling Vi’s brother, strumming his guitar, and singing, when Bill breaks down in the middle of a song he is playing, and Luke holds onto him, comforting his damaged veteran brother.
Sally and Luke have their dinner date, which is awkward, as they are not sure how to deal with their feelings for each other, symbolized right from the beginning by how difficult it is for Luke to navigate his way in his wheelchair into Sally’s house. She starts to light a fire even though it is warm out. When she is about to put on some records, she says he probably won’t like her music choices. He says jokingly, but highlighting his insecurity, that she won’t like the way he dances. With Richie Havens singing about being “nothing but a dream,” Luke tells her that in his dreams he has the use of his legs. Inside, he is still what he was before being wounded. Others don’t see him for what he really is, but only focus on the wheelchair, as if that defines him. In her own way, she can relate to that feeling, because she feels others only see her as still being the type of cheerleader she was in school, but now it has turned into the facade of the cheery captain’s wife. With existential insight, Sally says there is danger in allowing others to make you become underneath what only appears on the surface. He now admits that he thinks about making love to her most of the time. Her response is interesting. She says, “I’ve never been unfaithful to my husband.” It is the duty part of the relationship she zeroes in on, not the love that is supposed to prevent the unfaithfulness. She also says she hasn’t been intimate with another in the past, but leaves open the possibility that may change in the future. She takes him back to the hospital later that night, and they do kiss, she reluctantly at first, but more willingly after. He looks downward following the kiss, unsure of what has happened. Without words, the acting here conveys the mixed feelings of the characters.

A complication in the development of their relationship occurs when Bob informs Sally that he will be on liberty in Hong Kong, and he and Dink want her and Vi to visit them there. Vi can’t leave her job and her brother, so Sally must go alone. Luke is feeling up because he will be getting released from the hospital, and he will have an adapted car which will allow him to be mobile. But, her news of the trip to see her husband deflates his optimistic balloon, and although he wishes her a nice trip, his sadness is palpable. The confusion of the situation is accented by the playing of the song “My Girl,” which poses the question as to whose girl does Sally want to be?

In Hong Kong, Bob is distant. Sally (who has ironed her hair so she can play the “straight” role for her husband) says she wants to talk to him alone, and in a chilling tone, he says “We are alone,” which makes it sound like he is talking about the human experience in general. When pressed, he says that he is upset about the “bullshit” that he was been exposed to concerning the war. It’s like a “TV show,” where “reality” doesn’t “play well.” He runs off to find Dink who has left after being upset that Vi didn’t come. Bob is feeling that separation from those who haven’t experienced the truth about what it’s like to actually be in a war, so he seeks out fellow soldiers for that connection. Back in Hong Kong, Luke says he is not happy about Sally’s working at the hospital, possibly because it involves not the glory, but the casualties of war. In their hotel room, he tells Sally about a lieutenant who asked permission to place heads of enemy victims on poles to scare the Vietcong. He looks haunted by what the soldiers “were into.” Sally rubs a balm on his back to soothe him. Bob lifts his left hand up slightly, showing his wedding ring, which emphasizes his suspiciousness about her violating her marital commitment, her domestic version of “Semper Fi,”and asks her if that is the way she massages “the basket cases” at the hospital. Perhaps, also, he is thinking about how he can become one of those “basket cases” and she will have to tend to him like one of those disabled soldiers. Sally pulls back from his sinister tone, as she senses his suspicions, and possibly her guilt about her feelings for Luke.

Back in California, the neglect and pain that veterans experience is dramatized. Now in his own place, Luke, while shopping at a grocery store, can’t get through an isle and is rudely ignored by one of the customers who blocks Luke’s path with her cart. Her behavior mirrors the apathy of some about the needs of disabled veterans, and also shows the desire of some who to live in denial, too afraid to face the horrors of war that they have supported by allowing them to persist. At the hospital, Vi’s brother, Bill, is extremely distraught, banging out discordant sounds which reflect the clashing thoughts in his head. One of the veterans calls Luke, who has previously soothed Bill, to come over and help out. By the time he arrives, Bill has locked himself inside of a treatment room and injected air into a vein, creating an embolism, which kills him. The Rolling Stones’ song “Sympathy for the Devil” is played in the background, telling us that sometimes we are defeated by the demons within ourselves.

The butterfly effect ripples of these losses fan out engulfing others. Sally returns home to the grieving Vi, angry over the suicide of her brother. She asks Sally to go out with her to a club so she can drown her sorrow with alcohol. Vi is drunk and allows the two women to get picked up by a couple of men. They go back to the apartment of one of the guys, and Vi starts to do a striptease, but breaks down in the middle of it. On their way home they see Luke on the television. His response to Bill’s death is to publicly register his anger about the war. He chains himself and his wheelchair to the gates of a Marine recruiting depot, thus blocking entrance to the facility. He is arrested and tells the press that he didn’t want more men to participate in the war effort.

Sally picks him up at the police station, and tells Luke she wants to spend the night with him. They drive to his place, but his anti-establishment activity has drawn the interest of the FBI, and Luke, and therefore Sally, are under surveillance. Instead of the authorities tracking down those who pose a true threat to society, the law enforcement agencies in the country persecuted people because they peacefully expressed their political beliefs that were counter to prevailing government policy. (The worst example was the killing of unarmed protesters by National Guard troops at Kent University in Ohio).
The lovemaking depicted between Sally and Luke is in stark contrast to that between Sally and Bob. Here, Luke’s loss of standard sexual ability does not stop him from wanting intimacy on an emotional level as well as through simple physical closeness. He is able to derive satisfaction by bringing pleasure to Sally. When she reaches a climax through oral stimulation, she admits that it is the first time she has been able to experience an orgasm. The movie questions the standard roles of men and women in a sexual situation, and suggests that the traditional view of what constitutes “a real man” should be revised.
The quick sequences that follow show a period of joy when they build ramps for easier wheelchair access, which also symbolize erecting emotional bridges which help Sally and Luke better connect with each other. They socialize with Vi, which helps her with her healing process. They ride and run along the boardwalk, together flying a kite, which suggests a feeling of soaring above their individual problems. Luke shows Sally slides of his time in Vietnam, and he comments about what an intricate tunnel system the natives there had developed over time fighting the Japanese, the French, and now the Americans. His comment emphasizes that these people are used to fighting on their land, and we are just one in a succession of enemies. The point made is that Americans delude themselves thinking they can beat Vietnamese, because they have the experience and the perseverance needed to defeat invaders.
Sally gets a letter saying Bob was wounded in the foot and was coming home (again what should be a happy time will not turn out to be so). Luke and Sally have already talked about how torn she is between her new feelings for Luke and her many years spent with Bob. Now, she prepares with Vi to give Bob a welcoming home party. She meets him at the military base, which has anti-war protestors at the gates. The divided feelings in the country are illustrated by one protestor flashing Bob the peace sign as they drive through the gate and Bob giving the young man the finger. A billboard at the entrance to the base shows a shaggy-haired young man and the words, “Beautify America - Get a haircut.” It is the regimented military way of saying its uniforms stand for accepted uniformed behavior, while the counterculture’s look is a blight on the country.

Bob is okay with the sports car that Sally bought, possibly because it appeals to the manly preoccupation with a powerful machine, but it also allows him to escape when he doesn’t want to confront his feelings about the war. He is more disturbed by other changes to the status quo, including Sally’s curly hair, and her preemptively moving into a beach house. Sally and Vi ask him about how he was wounded, and Bob finally admits that he accidentally shot himself in the foot (possibly the film’s comment on how America sustained a self-inflicted wound by getting into the Vietnam War). His leg injury is a lesser one than that of Luke’s but it still links them thematically. He is embarrassed about receiving a medal for getting wounded in such a way, and again runs off, wanting to be with fellow soldiers who share his experiences rather than reconnecting with his wife. He returns with a bunch of drunken soldiers to divert him from any attempt to deal with his psychological pain. The next day Sally is scared of what’s become of Bob, because she sees that he has slept with a pistol in his hand.

The FBI calls Bob in and we know that they will tell him what has been going on with Sally and Luke, probably to unleash him against what they consider to be a subversive enemy. Bob shows up at the pool at Luke’s development. One would think there will be a violent confrontation at  this point. However, Bob tells Luke that he should know that the FBI has pictures and recordings concerning his activity with Sally. Bob lies when he says he’s already talked to Sally about it, probably hoping that would elicit an honest response from Luke. Luke awkwardly thanks him for giving him this information. Bob appears shaken and says that is all he was there to say and the rest was up to Sally. But, he appears shaken, almost as if he wanted Luke to deny what the FBI told him. Bob goes home to confront Sally about the affair, but takes his rifle affixed with a bayonet into the house. There is a great deal of suspense at this point as we are unsure how this scene will play out. To the movie’s credit, it does not surrender to a formulaic violent ending.
Sally tells Bob that she needed someone, but he says that is “bullshit, which he has had enough of already concerning the war. He tells her everyone “needs” someone, implying that is a sorry excuse to commit adultery, and it is difficult to argue with him. Of course, what was wrong with their relationship was already there, with Sally playing a role that did not really reflect who she was. Bob thought he knew where he was supposed to be, and now he yells that he no longer belongs in this house as Sally’s husband, and he doesn’t fit in with the military either, given his misgivings about how the war has been fought. He confesses that he doesn’t deserve to be her husband, a heartbreaking admission of his failure as a mate. He also doesn’t deserve to receive the medal awarded to him. He feels his whole life is a sham, and he is lost for the first time in his mapped out life. His last name may be “Hyde” but he can’t “hide” from the truth anymore. Luke, concerned about Sally, shows up. Bob wields the rifle threateningly at the other two. Luke apologizes for making a fellow veteran’s return more painful. But, he tries to tell Bob that Sally loves Bob, and she can help heal him (which he knows is true because that is what she did for him). Luke finally is able to talk Bob down when he says, “I’m not the enemy … you don’t want to kill anybody here. You have enough ghosts to carry around.” Bob puts the gun down and tells Sally he just wanted to be a hero, do something important. Luke releases the bayonet and empties the bullets loaded in the rifle, disarming the situation literally and figuratively. But, in a way he has also taken away Bob’s manliness as Bob defines it, symbolized by the phallic bayonet and rifle, and, unlike Luke who dealt with his inability to function in the traditional male role, Bob does not know how to move forward. Sally and Luke exchange a glance, which we know signifies that they are saying goodbye to each other.
The ending has Sally trying to make Bob feel at home, that is, safe and accepted, as she goes to the market with Vi to get some items for an old-fashioned American barbecue. But, the wordless Bob, dressed in his Marine uniform, goes to the beach. He strips off his clothes showing he no longer belongs in that uniform. He takes off the wedding ring, the one he said he would never remove, symbolizing that he is not a husband anymore. He goes into the ocean, probably to commit suicide, because he no longer feels at home anywhere on earth, and “coming home” to him now is a kind of reversal of birth, as he returns to the liquid world from where he once came.
Luke was invited to speak to high school students, because of his protest at the recruiting depot, to provide the counter argument to a Marine’s advocacy of joining the military. Once a high school hero, who ran in football games as the military-sounding captain of the team, fighting for victory, he now returns to school as a man who lost the power of those legs as part of a different team in a much more dangerous battle. He tells the students that he (like Bob) wanted to be a hero and fight for his country. But after experiencing the horrors of such a pointless war, he tells them there are no good reasons “to feel a person die in your hands or to see your best buddy get blown away.” He is there to try to prevent those tragedies from happening to them.

The film ends with Luke saying, “there’s a choice to be made here.” In that sense this story is timeless, because whenever violence threatens a nation’s citizens, they must take responsibility for saying in which direction the country should go.

The next film is The Accused.

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