In the years that followed the drawn-out end of the Vietnam War, filmmakers looked to capture both the hellscape America had caused and also the emotional, long-term impact it had paired an entire generation with. It had tarnished a relationship between government and people, which was strained at the best of times. This impact would be felt filtering through generations of those that had been affected by the war in Vietnam. Not just to those who had served, but to those around them also. Cinema was rife with these experiences and stories. Taxi Driver alluded to it, Forrest Gump accepts the Hollywood appeal of such a tear-jerking story, but it is Rolling Thunder that looks into the mindset of prisoners of war. Understanding the impact it has on their psyche to be in confinement, and suddenly brought back to the western world.
They must adapt or die. Acclimatise or shrivel up and perish. So many were unable to deal with the release they felt and the stress placed upon them should they be lucky enough to return home. Rolling Thunder captures this to a degree. The tragedy of those who fought for their country, often without choice. Those who survived found themselves dealing with the long-term effects of emotional rattling, which would be with them until the day they died. Director John Flynn, much like that of Scorsese’s work the year prior, attempts to spin this as a tale of modern rebellion and eventual avengement. They avenge not their country or conscience, but their physical self. Much like Travis Bickle avenged himself through what he believed to be the scum and vermin of New York City, so too does Major Charles Rane (William Devane).
He is the hero of war, and when his service medal is stolen, he sets out on not just retrieving that, but also retrieving some semblance of value to his own life. He is aided by Johnny Vohden (Tommy Lee Jones) in scenes that hope to understand the fractured mindset of a man so set on avenging the tarnished value of his life. Devane is likeable, and as a leading man sets out his rigid authority. He is the hero that is reciprocated by society without question, for his service has overtaken his shortcomings. Flynn does not manage to grapple with such drawbacks, presenting rather generalised topics that may or may not be conflicting in the mind of Rane. An initially promising set-up turns into a rather simplistic tale of revenge. A sad shame, since Flynn clearly has what it takes to present the prevailing themes with respect and importance, just not the gut-punch impact such ideas would suggest.
Some years later, Jones would get his chance to toy with the Vietnam veteran on the self-righteous path of personal enlightenment in The Park is Mine. His success is weighted differently, for although he and Devane have the same intentions, their presentation is wildly different. Rolling Thunder wishes to connect with the emotional fallibility of an audience, looking for acceptance in its leading character, much the same as Taxi Driver. Do we find such acceptance? Possibly, yes. With a bit of polish here and a cut there, Rolling Thunder does display the possibility of accepting Rane as a troubled man looking to relive his past, not through choice, but the lack thereof. It is ample work, gets to where it wants to be, but leaves little impact.