The 1977 film, Heroes, tells the story of Jack Dunne (a young Henry Winkler).
Jack spent four years fighting in Vietnam. Since returning to America, he has struggled to adjust to civilian life. Though he’s mentally blocked out much of what happened in Vietnam, he’s haunted by nightmares, When we first meet him, he’s a patient at a mental health facility in New York City. He has big plans, though. He wants to open up a worm farm in Eureka, California. He’s convinced that he can make a ton of money selling worms to fisherman and he wants all of the old members of his unit to join him in the venture. After Jack escapes from the hospital, he boards a bus heading for California.
He also meets Carol (Sally Field), who is supposed to be getting married in four days but who has decided to board a bus and take an impromptu vacation instead. When Carol is told that the bus is already full and she’ll have to wait for the next one, Jack bribes the ticket agent to get Carol on the bus. Once on the bus, Jack makes himself into a nuisance, continually bothering the driver (Val Avery) and embarrassing Carol. (In the film’s defense, it’s later established that Jack isn’t just being a jerk for fun. The driver’s uniform makes Jack nervous. That said, it’s hard not to feel bad for the driver, who is just doing his stressful job to the best of his ability.) Carol and Jack do eventually strike a tentative friendship. They’re linked by the fact that they’re both trying to escape from something.
At a diner, Jack tells her that he served in Vietnam.
“I protested the war,” Carol says.
“I fought it,” he replies.
Carol eventually joins with Jack in his quest to track down the three people who he expects to go into business with. One of them is missing. One of them never returned home from the war. And the third, Ken (Harrison Ford), is living in a trailer and raising rabbits for a living. Ken is also a stock car racer, though he eventually admits that he rarely wins. In fact, he seems to spend most of his time drinking and shooting off the M16 that he keeps in his car’s trunk. Meeting Ken sends Jack spiraling into depression but, with Carol’s help, Jack is finally starts to come to terms with the reality of what happened to him and his friends in Vietnam.
Heroes was one of the first films to sympathetically portray the plight of Vietnam veterans struggling to adjust to life back in the United States and it certainly deserves a lot of credit for its good intentions. (Indeed, it’s implied that a part of Carol’s concern from Jack comes from her own guilt over how the anti-war movement treated the returning soldiers.) That said, the film itself is an awkward mix of drama and comedy. The first half of the film, in which Henry Winkler comes across like he’s doing a manic Al Pacino impersonation, is especially uneven. Winkler and Field are both naturally likable enough that the film remains watchable but, during the first half of the film, most viewers will never buy their relationship for a second. It’s hard to believe that the driver wouldn’t have kicked Jack off the bus as soon as he started to cause trouble and the other passengers often seem to be unrealistically charmed by Jack’s behavior. If I’m on a crowded bus and some dude insists on walking up and down the aisle and taunting the driver, I’m probably going to get off at the first stop and refuse to get back on. Traveling with a bunch of strangers is already nerve-wracking enough without having to deal with all of that.
Not surprisingly, things improve once Harrison Ford shows up. This was one of Ford’s last character parts before he was cast as Han Solo in Star Wars. (Heroes, however, was released after Star Wars, which explains why Ford is mentioned prominently in the trailer despite having a relatively small role.) Ford gives a strong performance as the amiable but ultimately self-destructive Ken. Ford plays Ken as someone whose quick smile is a cover for the fact that his entire life is a mess. Whereas Jack wears his emotions on his sleeve (and Winkler never stops projecting those emotions), Ken is someone who has repressed his anger and his sadness and Ford gives an internalized and controlled performance. Perhaps not coincidentally, Winkler calms down a bit when he’s acting opposite Ford and, as a result, his own performance starts to improve.
After the meeting with Ken, Jack starts to realize that it’s not going to be as easy to start his business as he thought. Jack starts to come down from his manic high and, even more importantly, Henry Winkler stops overacting and instead, starts to dig into the sadness at the heart of Jack’s life. During its second half, the film finally settles on being a drama and Heroes becomes a much stronger story as a result. Even Jack and Carol’s relationship seems to make more sense during the second half of the film. Things end on a note of cautious optimism, which also acknowledging that life can never go back to what it was before the war.
Today, if anyone watches Heroes, it’s probably going to be for Harrison Ford. (I imagine the presence of Harrison Ford is the reason why it’s currently available on Netflix.) It’s a bit of an uneven film, one that feels as if it should have been stronger than it actually was. Still, it’s a worthwhile time capsule of 1977 and America’s struggle to come to terms with the Vietnam War. Today, we’re still struggling to come to terms with what happened in Iraq and with the botched withdrawal from Afghanistan and, again, it seems like the country is too busy trying to move on to take the time to take care of its veterans. It’s sad that so many people only seem to care about the soldiers who fight in popular wars. Heroes was a plea to America not to forget its veterans. It’s a plea that still needs to be heard.
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