The War at Home
1996, R, 124 min. Directed by Emilio Estevez. Starring Emilio Estevez, Martin Sheen, Kathy Bates, Kimberly Williams.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., May 16, 1997
It's one of those terrific behind-the-scenes snafus Hollywood manages to pull on occasion: a major studio fails to give any significant marketing push to a small, powerfully affecting film, partly because they're not sure how to market it and partly because other, more prominent releases have crowded the multiplexes with less worthy product. In this case, it's Estevez's wrenching adaptation of the James Duff stage play The War at Home, which was shot here in the Austin area last year. Estevez stars in and directs the film and it's, by far, his most powerful, mature work yet. As the story goes, Estevez starred in D3: The Mighty Ducks, gratis, in order to secure the backing for this project, only to have the studio drop the ball once the film was completed. Released in only a few cities last fall and then inexplicably buried, the folks at Disney had to be cajoled at this late date into begrudging the film an Austin theatrical run. Which is a real shame. After a lengthy deluge of literally explosive coming-to-grips-with-the-Vietnam-experience offerings, Estevez's film takes a more subtle tack: He plays Jeremy Collier, a young Texan recently back from his tour of duty in Southeast Asia. Thrust back into the routine of day-to-day family life, Jeremy can't seem to re-integrate into the norm. He shakes constantly, his eyes hold a furtive gleam, and his nights are broken by terrible dreams. Life in the Collier household is subdued, and to Jeremy, it's full of false promises. Neither his Southern Baptist mother (Bates) nor his stern, ineffectual father (Sheen) seem to be any help. They can't understand, much less come to grips with this prodigal son's shattered psyche, while younger sister Karen (Williams) is just trying to cope with the situation as best she can. Things come to a head on Thanksgiving Day, when Jeremy's Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome explodes in a unsuppressable storm of rage and hate. It's perhaps understandable, to some degree, why a major Hollywood studio might have trouble getting behind this film. It's an emotionally supercharged glimpse at the early Seventies homefront and how the conflict in Vietnam shattered more than the young men who fought there. What humor there is comes in the form of nervous laughter. You realize almost from Scene One that something awful is going to happen here, and you spend the rest of the film waiting for Jeremy's night sweats to erupt into the daylight. That's no reason to bury the film, though. All four of the leads are perfect here, with Bates' high-strung, petulant Maurine Collier coming across as June Cleaver gone to hell, and Sheen's patriarch a no-nonsense all-American dad, clueless in the face of this wartime broadside that's engulfed his precious home. The War at Home isn't perfect; at times an overt preachiness comes to the fore, and Jeremy's backstory sometimes seems thin and questionable, but those minor quibbles aside, it's undoubtedly one of the most riveting portrayals of Vietnam's impact on the American family since Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter. It's a shame that most everyone will have to watch it on video.