1978; directed by Hal Ashby; written by Robert C. Jones and Waldo Salt; 126 mins
It’s funny how this film looks so much like the prototype “worthy” Oscarbait film: topical message, politically engaged stars tackling ISSUES, low-key filmmaking and an able-bodied actor in the main role of a disabled person. It lost the top award that year to Michael Cimino’s right wing and – if not actually racist then massively, blindly misjudged – The Deer Hunter. It’s a real shame cos this is way better!
1968: Sally Hyde is an army wife whose husband, Bob, is off to ‘Nam and she is at a loose end, not knowing what to do on her own for the first time. Her friend, Vi, has a brother in the VA hospital and so, wanting to help, she decides to volunteer and aid the paraplegic vets. There she meets an old acquaintance, Luke Martin, a bitter, furious vet, confined to a gurney whilst waiting for a wheelchair to become available.
Initially, Luke is hostile and patronising towards Sally but (in the way of these things) his anger is redirected and love grows between them but with the ever looming threat of Bob’s return…
I think it is true that the ending doesn’t work so well in that, whilst still very emotional, it gets a touch too on the nose and the three main characters’ arcs don’t quite get satisfactorily capped off. Understood: the film isn’t meant to be about conclusions, it’s about three people in flux amidst politically confusing times but it does end a bit too abruptly.
However, that nitpicking is kind of more to do with the fact that rest of the film grew on me so much that it seems like a bigger problem than it probably actually is. The three leads, plainly, really give a damn about this film – of course, Fonda had a reputation as ‘Hanoi Jane‘. Director Hal Ashby, continues his love of documentary-like filming, which was very much in vogue during the American New Wave and worked so fantastically in his 1973 masterpiece, The Last Detail.
The soundtrack was a puzzler to begin with. Every other scene has some contemporary pop song over it which is at the same time prominent and yet in the background, as if the radio were on during the sound mix. Only late on did I realise that it seemed to be an active move to make the soundtrack be the main component that entrenches us in the period. So, whilst today the film still feels relevant in it’s themes of the morals of war on the homefront, it is very definitely cemented in the 60s.
For all the Oscarbait talk, the film is sincere and that’s most evident in one of the final scenes where Luke finally decides to talk to a bunch of college students about the war. I may have said the end doesn’t work but this scene and Voight’s voice-cracking performance prove that before it all became so awards-courting and before Voight himself turned into a total prick… there’s no doubting that they really gave a shit!