Spotlight 1978: Courage Under Fire

This entry is part of Spotlight 1978, a series where we talk about films released in 1978.

The Vietnam War remains one of the most compelling and complex conflicts in American history, and yet for a handful of years, Hollywood felt that it was far too sensitive a topic to tackle in “mainstream” cinema. The first film to attempt to do so was 1977’s Heroes, which received a rather lukewarm reception perhaps because audiences and critics weren’t prepared to accept a film that dealt with the issue despite having a lighthearted touch. The wounds left by the Fall of Saigon in 1975 were probably all too fresh at this point. Nobody wanted to watch a movie that dealt with a subject which marred the pride of the American people. That all began to change in 1978, when two pictures that presented different perspectives of the infamously divisive dispute were released to great acclaim. Even watching them today, The Deer Hunter and Coming Home are reflections of the opposing camps behind their conceptions, and hence had different agendas to pursue and present to audiences. Moviegoers were intrigued by how these filmmakers would realistically portray the impact of a war that had undoubtedly reached it saturation point with the public thanks to tireless media exposure coupled with the exhaustive efforts of antiwar protesters. All the same, these pictures set a precedent for the coming years, as numerous films followed such as 1979’s Apocalypse Now, 1986’s Platoon, 1987’s Full Metal Jacket, 1989’s Born on the Fourth of July, and many others unveiled unflinching depictions of the devastating effects American soldiers endured both physically and psychologically.

Peter Biskind’s extensive Vanity Fair essay entitled “The Vietnam Oscars” is essential reading for anyone who wishes to have a deeper understanding of the many challenges that the producers of both The Deer Hunter and Coming Home faced during this trying period of American filmmaking. In many ways, tackling the subject matter of this traumatic war presented its own level of emotional anguish that echoed the injuries which plagued the many soldiers who left Vietnam irreversibly changed. It is similar stories which anchor both movies, but where one plays with a rather ambiguous approach on patriotic sentiments, the other is clear about its antiwar agenda, while still maintaining a hopeful tone.

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De Niro in the Driver’s Seat: Many of the actors signed on to do The Deer Hunter because of him

There’s no arguing that The Deer Hunter is by all accounts an example of a modern American epic, and I’m not just referring to its impressive 183-minute running time. Everything is done on a larger than life scale to deliver an intensive authenticity. From the stirring musical score by Stanley Myers to the breathtaking cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond, the atmosphere that director Michael Cimino creates permeates through the screen, leaving you, as an audience member, completely immersed in the locales that shift from the steely Pennsylvanian town where we’re introduced to its protagonists to the hauntingly realistic Vietcong prison camp (that was actually shot in Thailand). Yet far more than the technical authenticity that the film is able to effectively capture, it also delivers some of the strongest performances from actors who at this particular period were (save for top biller Robert De Niro) largely known for being promising young upstarts. This film is probably the biggest testament to the future staying power of the likes of Meryl Streep, who expanded on her minimal role in the original draft of the screenplay by writing her own dialogue at director Cimino’s suggestion, and Christopher Walken, who would go on to score an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his tragically affecting role. Despite the well-documented disputes over its historical accuracy (particularly with its use of Russian roulette as a torture device) and allegedly racist representation of the Vietnamese people, for anyone who can endure its sprawling running time, graphic violence, and heavy-handed atmosphere, The Deer Hunter is an important, challenging experience for any lover of cinema.

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Saddled with the moniker, “Hanoi Jane” for much of the 70s for her antiwar activism, Coming Home became a saving grace of sorts for Fonda.

Less painful to watch, but equally engaging is Hal Ashby’s paraplegic love story Coming Home. Jane Fonda’s pet project was a by-product of her own commitment to the antiwar movement, and was inspired by her friendship with paraplegic ‘Nam veteran Ron Kovic (who Tom Cruise would go on to portray in Born on the Fourth of July). Where The Deer Hunter succeeds with grandiose production value, this film strikes a chord with its intimate exposition while still avoiding being overly sentimental. Yes, by all accounts, this is a romantic drama, but thanks to a restrained yet earnest screenplay that survived a handful of writers and several drafts (that sometimes were still worked on while filming was taking place with its leads Fonda and Voight pitching in lines of dialogue as well), it is a story that bears witnessing for its sincerity amidst brevity. It triumphantly scored a Best Original Screenplay Oscar thanks to this collective effort. Fonda and Voight also deservedly took home the Lead Acting Oscars that year as well for their brave portrayal of two individuals who were searching for meaning in their disparate lives, and somehow wound up on the same page, both physically and spiritually. To say that theirs was just an emotional connection wouldn’t do justice to their performances. Their quest for meaning in a seemingly meaningless war during a confusing period in both their individual lives and in America’s as a whole, is nothing short of spellbinding. It takes an exceptional level of restraint, and an understanding of how life-changing the experience of another person’s struggles are to really effectively present a love story that goes beyond the usual trappings of romance. It is in this aspect that Coming Home truly shines: it is dressed up as an unlikely love affair set in one of the many VA hospitals that were inundated with injured veterans during the Vietnam War, but it is really a meditation on the search for redemption after the ravages of battle.

It’s hard to choose which film approached the war more effectively since both pictures paint an important portrait of this stirring time in American history. The Deer Hunter, despite its detractors, is still one of the most talked-about pieces of 1978, and I have to admit that to this day, its stark depiction of the horrors of war (however allegedly inaccurate) still made my skin crawl. And that’s what some of the best war films do; remind us of the atrocities of war to stir a sense of questioning in their necessity or validity. Coming Home, which I saw for the first time this year, was a genuine surprise. Its sensitive handling of the subject matter was punctuated by Fonda’s (and the rest of the team that she assembled through her own production company) obvious opposition towards America’s involvement in Vietnam. In a way, it seemed like the smarter way to get their agenda across, respectfully keeping their distance from onscreen depictions of the very conflict they were protesting, and bringing focus to the fact that the biggest battles are fought long after surviving soldiers are done evading gunfire.

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