The War at Home

Friday November 22, 1996

     How wonderful it would be to be able to dismiss Emilio Estevez's "The War at Home" as being a little late in the game, as it deals with the agony of a returning Vietnam vet. That it is set in 1972, however, simply drives home its question of whether America really has taken responsibility for sending its sons and daughters off to a war that President Eisenhower himself warned against.
     According to the National Veterans Foundation, some 500,000 Vietnam veterans still suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, and it estimates that 34% of America's homeless are Vietnam veterans. "The War at Home" leaves you wondering how many more have gone untreated and to what degree such suffering has been heightened by the widespread ambivalence toward our most unpopular war and those who fought it.
     This is strong stuff, but "The War at Home" goes beyond its bristling broadside against the cruel plight of so many Vietnam veterans to present a portrait of the Middle American family at once as critical and compassionate as that of a Sinclair Lewis novel. If self-absorption is the abiding sin of Estevez's Colliers, just think how this tendency has worsened among us in the past quarter century.
     Estevez stars himself as Jeremy Collier, a Vietnam vet who is transported back into the deadly jungles of Vietnam every time he walks in the woods behind his parents' comfortable suburban Texas home. Jeremy, who has made a stab at attending a nearby university, is consumed with a psychic pain that threatens to drive him around the bend as his family prepares to celebrate Thanksgiving.
     His father, Bob (Martin Sheen), the local GM dealer, is concerned about his son's state of mind but absolutely cannot comprehend why the profoundly embittered and guilt-ridden Jeremy can't put the past behind him and get on with his life--as he was able to in the aftermath of World War II. Bob, however, is fundamentally a know-it-all, old-fashioned man of the house whose word is law. He's a man who belongs to one of the last generation of white males who could succeed without much education.
     Jeremy's mother, Maurine (Kathy Bates), is narrow-minded--she's not about to watch "Cactus Flower" on TV with that wicked Ingrid Bergman--and caught up in domestic routines yet down deep feels neglected by her family who in fact pay her little attention, perhaps because she's such a shrill, trivia-ridden bore. Jeremy's psych major younger sister Karen (Kimberly Williams) has heard something about veterans having "serious adjustment problems," but when she reaches out to Jeremy in a way he finds superficial she becomes solely concerned about her hurt feelings.
     The Colliers have in their midst a son who's a potential time bomb ticking away but are fundamentally into wavering between denial and obtuseness. It occurs to none of them simply to ask him, "What was it like?," or that he is in dire need of professional help. In the Colliers' collective view all he really needs is to straighten up and fly right. The consequences of being "sent to a place where we fought only to stay alive" seem far beyond their interest, let alone comprehension.
     Yet "The War at Home"--which writer James Duff adapted so deftly to the screen from his play "Homefront" that its theatrical roots don't occur to you--embraces rather than condemns the Colliers. They're all too human in their ignorance and pride yet are loving people. But will they ever be capable of responding to Jeremy in his increasing desperation?
     Estevez is a haunting Jeremy, and his ability to direct other actors (including his father) in highly complex and contradictory roles is formidable. Sheen, Bates (who brings a crucial saving humorousness to Maurine) and Williams all excel, and "The War at Home" offers a quartet of performances that are among the year's best.
     "The War at Home," underlined effectively with Basil Poledouris' subtly elegiac score, is a confident, straight-ahead no-nonsense movie that delivers its message relentlessly with maximum impact.

The War at Home, 1996. R, for a war-related shooting, and an intense sequence of violent threat, and for language. A Buena Vista release of a Touchstone Pictures presentation of an Avatar Entertainment production. Director Emilio Estevez. Producers Emilio Estevez, Brad Krevoy, Steve Stabler and James Duff. Executive producer Tracie Graham Rice. Screenplay by James Duff; based on his play "Homefront." Cinematographer Peter Levy. Editor Craig Bassett. Costumes Grania Preston. Music Basil Poledouris. Production designer Eve Cauley. Set decorator Jeanette Scott. Running time: 2 hours, 3 minutes. Kathy Bates as Maurine Collier. Martin Sheen as Bob Collier. Kimberly Williams as Karen Collier. Emilio Estevez as Jeremy Collier.

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