(If you’re curious, my review process. It’s also pasted at the end of this post. I don’t believe in Rotten Tomatoes. I just believe in me.)
(***all-purpose SPOILER ALERT*** there may be some in this review)
SW SCORE: 45
4.5 out of 5 🐙
The 70s sure did have a lot of movies about Vietnam. I think it might be interesting to see if the other wars produced similar amounts of movies. I would imagine WWII would lead the pack. I would expect The Vietnam War to be close behind it. But the question isn’t as simple as the total number of movies about a given war. What I’m trying to say is I’m curious if the 1st & 2nd Iraq Wars along with the war in Afghanistan had similar outputs after they began. I say “began” because the 2nd Iraq war and the war in Afghanistan are still going. But back to the blog at hand. I’ll set aside my pop data obsessions for another time.
As I’ve already said, this is a movie about the Vietnam War. In particular, it is a movie about the veterans left physically disabled by the war. It starts with commentary I’ve never seen before about this or any other war in a movie. I’m not saying it’s the first movie to do this; just the first one I’ve seen. One of the disabled vets argues that he would go back if he physically could, even knowing the risk of disabling wounds. The other vets are curious as to his rationale for this and he says, essentially, that if this war was just a horrible mistake, then he was disabled for nothing. He is essentially saying that he needs to believe this war was for something bigger than racist imperialism wearing a veneer of democracy. After seeing this, I knew I was in for something different.
The movie essentially centers around three people: Sally Hyde (Jane Fonda), the wife of Captain Bob Hyde (played by a cherubic Bruce Dern), an army officer about to leave, and Luke Martin (Jon Voight), a disabled Vietnam vet. And this is disabled like I’ve never seen before. A lot of it has to do with the initial state we see Martin in. He’s laying face down on a stretcher, with a colostomy bag attached to him, and using two canes to move himself around. It also has to do with the available medical technology in the 1970s. It makes the severity of his wounds that much worse because the medical community has that much less to ameliorate them. No one should be surprised, but he is an enraged, mean, substance-abusing mess. Who wouldn’t be?
On the other end of the war’s physiological and psychological spectrum are Bob and Sally Bob’s never seen combat or Vietnam, so he is still drinking the kool-aid that says American victory is inevitable and glory awaits officers in combat. Sally is his supportive army wife who is strong and determined and also confident in the American prospects for success in southeast Asia. It’s funny to see Fonda start off in this mindset, as a war patriot, with her reputation as a fervent, and depending who you ask, controversial advocate against the war in Vietnam. To be fair, both of these people lived in a world where the USA had never lost a significant conflict. Why wouldn’t they be assured?
If you’ve seen only a few movies, and you know there are three main characters and one of they are not all one binary gender, you can probably guess where this is going. Bob gets his wish and is sent to Vietnam. When he leaves, Sally, to keep busy and contribute to the war effort by volunteering with the disabled veterans. Sally and Luke meet and immediately hate each other, as is required by most love affairs in Hollywood cinematic tradition. Their relationship and mutual admiration grows as Luke begins to recover physically until he is just partially paralyzed and can live independently with a wheelchair and a modified car; and he chooses a muscle car and drives it like a maniac, charmingly playing counter to poor stereotypes.
You probably know what happens next. It wouldn’t be a love triangle without drama-inducing love, right? They fall in love. Unfortunately, not for the movie audience, their love does not go unseen. Bob returns from Vietnam and he has none of the bravado he left with. He is clearly a deeply traumatized man, bristling with anger and defensive as hell. Very few weren’t.
Hollywood movie law also mandates that a love triangle culminates in a clash. This story is no exception. But what makes this film so singular is what happens after everything is made clear. Things go as you think they might, as they usually do, but there is a very strong difference. Bob does not react as a normal person would to this revelation. Why? Because the war has shattered him. Dern essentially plays two character sin this bravura performance. He starts as a cocksure patriot and ends up a new person whose world view has been destroyed. Dern gives us two roles for the price of one. Voight’s beginning as a walking open wound, in every conceivable way, to a person who has begun his new life with hope is likewise a tale of two acting turns. It’s even more impressive than Dern’s transformation because we see the gradual change in between Luke’s alpha and omega. This is not to minimize Fonda’s performance. She did win the Oscar for Best Actress, after all. As with Voght and Dern, she doesn’t so much change personalities but learns a large truth about war that she was never really looking for when the movie began. She falls in love despite already being in love. Fonda handles all of these developments with mastery.
Along the way, we get treated to a lot of very dark humor and lots of social commentary. It would be very odd if a movie about returning military vets did otherwise. I’ll just give you some examples of some words and deeds that made me laugh or lurch.
Lurch: a black vet performs a ventriloquist act with a racist puppet in a bizarre act
Laugh: “Kevin. I thought you died Wednesday.”
Lurch: a vet complains that the army has done nothing to prepare them for a return to civilian life. This seems to be a tradition.
Laugh: “Isn’t it dangerous for the men to be around young women?” “When I was in Weight Watchers, I didn’t have any candy around the house.”
Lurch: Luke cries in sympathy for Billy, a vet whose wounds are largely mental, showing early respect for mental illness.
Laugh: Jane’s amazing new haircut. It makes 80s big hair seem demure.
The devastating dialogue moments cut to the core of the traumatized war veteran existence. Two lines on this disaster wrecked me:
Bob screams that he doesn’t belong anywhere anymore: “I don’t belong in this house. I don’t belong over there either…I just want to be a hero, that’s all. I just want to be a fucking hero…I want to have done something that’s mine that I’ve done.”
Luke gives an impassioned speech to prospective army recruits, and he tells them the war was not glory or good; It just hurt him in every way, physically and mentally. It’s an amazing and sorrowful statement. It’s a man screaming painfully into the universe.
Along the way, as with many 70s movies, we get to listen to a wonderful soundtrack.
It really is a phenomenal ending and movie. There are no simple archetypes or black and white characters. They are real people with darkness and light in them.
(1) Shark Wrighter (SW) Score: Based on a sum of 5 sub-scores (acting, directing, writing/story, effects: cinematography &/or animation &/or effects, editing) with 1 being terrible and 10 being terrific.
(2) Octopuses (0-5 🐙, with 5 being fantastic and 0 being feces)
(3) Octopuses are my unquantifiable feeling…not that SW score is scientific…but this one is even less so
(4) ++ This optional section includes any incredibly *brilliant observations that don’t fit into simple quantitative slices like the scores and octopuses *(they are likely NOT brilliant)