At least according to one source I read, The War at Home had only a limited theatrical release in 1996 and recouped virtually zero of the money it cost to make it.
Which is surprising, because it has plenty of big name stars—including Martin Sheen, Kathy Bates and Emilio Estevez (who is also the director and co-producer)—and, more importantly, it’s actually quite good. Well, maybe the latter isn’t all that surprising, as I don’t want to imply a correlation between quality and popularity/moneymaking.
Maybe it just wasn’t the right time for the movie, since it’s subject matter (a Vietnam veteran’s inability to adjust to civilian life) is something young people might regard as uninteresting ancient history, and middle-aged and older people might think of as having been done to death.
But I was at least moderately interested in it the whole way.
The bulk of the movie takes place in the family home in Texas that Estevez has returned to from the war to live with his parents and college-aged sister. He is unmotivated to get a job or do much of anything. He is a very part time student, but mostly he just sits at home and the family sort of falls back into their habitual manner of interaction, though never fully comfortably because he is so obviously unwell.
So at times they go on about their business as if nothing’s changed, at times they talk about him worriedly but try not to confront him, and at times they do confront him—sometimes in a soft way and sometimes in a “tough love” way. Nothing works though. He’s mostly sullen in the first half of the film, and then later behaves more childishly and erratically and seems to be falling apart.
On the positive side, I liked almost everything about the family interaction. For one thing, I had a surprisingly good feel for the person the veteran had been before the war, even though that is never shown. But you can infer it from the normality they try to recreate, and the way they lament his no longer fitting in. “I miss you,” the father says at one point, and it’s clear what he’s talking about.
Also, there is enough chemistry remaining that there’s still a certain warmth to the family environment, and even at times a humor to some of the early squabbles, that makes you root for them.
And I thought that even though in some ways the characters fit certain “types,” they never come across as caricatures, at least not to me. The father could have been played as an unfeeling, conservative autocrat; the mother could have come across as a self-absorbed conformist ditz. But while they each had elements of these things to their personality, they—and the other two main characters—really are more fully developed and sympathetic characters than that would suggest. I found myself especially connecting with the father.
I liked the way the tension of the family dynamics is conveyed. Although I never lost sympathy for the veteran, I also could very much appreciate the difficulties the others were having in trying to deal with him.
I remember a passage from the book about the Rwandan genocide—We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families—wherein an interviewee complains about how the survivors of the genocide are whiny and annoying. (Paraphrasing from memory) “It’s all ‘me, me, me.’ They won’t shut up about how their parents were killed or their spouse was killed, and all that.”
It’s so ludicrously unfeeling as to cross the line into humor. The very fact that someone would offer up that complaint is so appalling that it stuck with me as much as anything I read in the book.
But somehow that came back to me watching this movie, and suddenly it seemed a little less ridiculous.
Because even if your problems are ten times greater than mine, or the traumatic experiences you’ve undergone were twenty times greater than mine, there has to be some limit on how much leeway I can give you, how much everything can be about you and not me.
All the family members are obviously sympathetic to the veteran’s plight and are genuinely trying to help the situation. Yet they also each have at least one scene where they express the frustration of “Can this be about me for a change? Can nobody see that all this is adversely affecting me as well, and that I too want some attention and sympathy?” And I totally feel for them in both respects. You do wish the veteran could find it in him to be just a little understanding, to say, “What you’re doing doesn’t seem to be precisely what I need, and at times may even be making me feel worse, but I love you for your sincerity and your caring and the fact that you really are doing your best.”
As is apparent in these essays, I’m mostly a word guy, and insofar as I respond to the action on the screen it tends to be just on a literal level of what’s going on. I’m about the ideas and emotions conveyed directly by what the people on the screen are saying or doing. So it’s more the exception than the rule that I notice and comment favorably on visuals or sound that are more just for atmosphere or mood. But I did want to comment that I thought the use of the Beethoven piece in this movie in a late scene is very nice, and really brings some things together emotionally.
Indeed, the movie in general hits mostly the right notes emotionally.
On the negative side, I have no major criticisms. The only points I can raise are pretty minor.
The movie was adapted from a play, and occasionally it’s a little stagey, the dialogue is a little stilted. Or maybe the acting—which is mostly very good—is just a little off here and there. I noticed that most in Estevez’s performance in the portions of the movie when he comes out of his shell and displays more emotion. At times I wasn’t totally believing that.
Also the brief Vietnam flashback scenes feel like a play. They don’t have that feel of being shot on location to look like the real thing; they’re only marginally better than you might get on stage through the use of scenery in a play. So they require a little more imagination than is typically called for in a movie, and I found them a bit jarring or phony for that reason.
There are maybe one or two too many emotional confrontations or breakdowns in the second half of the film. The family dynamics had been established as somewhat warm, but also somewhat formal and tense, due to the family members talking around certain things and talking past each other about certain things rather than really being able to open up and communicate in an ideal way about feelings. It’s fine that that atmosphere is portrayed as unstable and that characters can’t help but break out of it, but the changes are a little too fast, frequent, and thorough.
One result of that is that while the climactic scene late in the film is a powerful one, I wonder if it would have been even more effective if there hadn’t already been so many emotional mini-peaks where the characters tried to force themselves to be heard and understood by each other. I’m not advocating a major change; like I say, maybe one or two fewer such exchanges.
When the movie gets away from the family to depict the interaction between the veteran and his ex-girlfriend, it drops off a bit. Those scenes aren’t bad, but that part of the film isn’t fully developed and could have been integrated better with the rest of the film, or skipped.
I’m OK with there being more specific reasons revealed late in the movie for the veteran’s difficulties in Vietnam and for his resentment toward his family—especially his father—after he gets back home, but I don’t know that it is really necessary. I suspect it would have been at least as effective and maybe a little more realistic if the reasons had been left more vague and cumulative.
I also thought the little note at the end about how things worked out isn’t spelled out enough to tell us much—the “evidence” offered is pretty minimal relative to the conclusion drawn from it—and probably doesn’t even need to be there in a work of fiction.
But all-in-all, The War at Home is a solid offering from start to finish.