Directed by: Oliver Stone.
Written by: Oliver Stone & Ron Kovic based on the book by Ron Kovic.
Starring: Tom Cruise (Ron Kovic), Willem Dafoe (Charlie), Raymond J. Barry (Mr. Kovic), Caroline Kava (Mrs. Kovic), Tom Berenger (Recruiting Gunnery Sgt. Hayes), Frank Whaley (Timmy), Jerry Levine (Steve Boyer), Kyra Sedgwick (Donna).
The opening scenes of Born on the Fourth of July is pure Americana – like something more out of a Frank Capra, or perhaps a Steven Spielberg movie (the very John Williams-y John Williams score helps) that something out a film directed by Oliver Stone (my wife, who hadn’t seen the film before, compared the scenes to Forrest Gump – and she’s not wrong either). For a good 15 minutes, Stone gives the audience an idealized America – seen not as they really were, but through nostalgic, rose colored glasses like so many other movies do. It stars Tom Cruise, who was the perfect embodiment of an American “Golden Boy” back in 1989 (he was 26, and in those scenes is playing a high school student – and it works somehow). The opening is all BBQs, parades and firecrackers (which is the only moment Stone shows a crack in the façade, as a few veterans in wheelchairs flinch as the firecrackers pop off), wrestling matches, and a school dance, which Cruise ends up running to in the rain so he can dance with his best gal, Donna. Cruise plays Ron Kovic – who believes strongly in the American dream, and will do anything to protect it. After these impossibly perfect opening scenes, Stone cuts immediately to Kovic in the midst of the Vietnam War – a confusing, chaotic battle, that has American soldiers massacring civilians (by accident, at least), and leaving babies to die, and ends with Kovic killing a shadowy figure who comes up over a hill, who ends up being one of his own men. When the battle is over, Kovic tries to tell his commanding officers what happened – and they don’t care. They don’t want to be down another man. They next battle ends even worse for Kovic – with him getting shot, and ending up paralyzed from the waist down. The America he left thinking was a paradise, turns into a nightmare when he returns.
Born on the Fourth of July in Stone’s Vietnam trilogy, following Platoon (1986) – and whole this film is not a direct sequel to that one, it doesn’t take much to connect the two of them. Both are about true believers who sign up for the war in Vietnam – Platoon’s Chris Taylor becomes disillusioned during his time in Vietnam – after spending months in the jungle, and seeing what happens. Kovic becomes disillusioned as well – but not until he returns home. When Kovic comes home – after a painful stint in an army hospital trying to do rehab – he spouts the same stuff he was saying before the war. “America, love it or leave” he says over and over again – but the words sound uglier, harsher now than the innocence of the earlier scenes. Kovic is coming home from a war that has scarred him emotionally forever, and left him paralyzed – his rote recitation of the same lines are his feeble attempt to get himself to believe it – that he went over there and made a noble sacrifice, for a worthy cause. But he doesn’t believe it, which is why when he returns he spirals downward – into drugs and alcoholism – the nadir of which is a trip to Mexico, that he spends drinking and whoring with other wounded vets like Charlie (Willem Dafoe) – a trip that almost costs him his life. He is a wheelchair, and a lot of people will do a lot of things for you when you’re in one. But if you’re a drunken asshole, people will only bend over for you so much.
Born on the Fourth of July is not a movie without flaws – which come through more for me on this repeated viewing, than when I had seen the film last (probably as a teenager). Cruise delivers a terrific performance to be sure – had he won the Oscar he had been nominated for, I would have no problem with that (and I actually prefer his performance to Daniel Day-Lewis’ winning turn in My Left Foot). Cruise is a particularly gifted physical actor – and he embraces the physical challenges of the role, that confines him to a wheelchair for much of the running time, with admirable skill. As he drags himself around – at first in a vain feat of self-delusional, thinking that maybe he will recover, and later in (and out of) the wheelchair it, you feel it in a way that is actually quite rare in movies like this. You feel him struggling, physically, throughout. Cruise’s embrace of those challenges are what make him such an effective action star, but he uses it here in a different, more difficult way. Cruise is also great at a lot of the more subtle moments in the film – flinching at firecrackers in a parade for example, which recalls the one break in the opening American Paradise scenes. Cruise is slightly less effective however when Stone and Kovic’s screenplay give him some of his more on the nose speeches. Stone has never had a reputation for being subtle – but his best films actually do have a lot of subtlety in them – and Born on the Fourth of July is no exception. But there are moments – when he’s making speeches – where Cruise struggles, although I think that’s the screenplay more than him. Also more of an issue of writing than performance is the finale, which seems to come on much too quickly. It’s almost as if there is a scene or two missing between Kovic’s Mexican period, and his return to the States and conversion to anti-war protestor, which seems too abrupt. In addition, despite the excellent supporting cast – many of whom leaving a last impression in just a few scenes – Dafoe as Charlie, Tom Berenger as a Marine recruiter, a young Lili Taylor, who I think only has one line as the wife of the man Kovic killed in Vietnam – the film jettisons the supporting characters rather quickly – not even bringing back his mother and father (Raymond J. Barrie and Caroline Kava) in those final scenes for any sort of resolution. For better or for worse, Born on the Fourth of July remains fixated on Kovic throughout.
But these are mainly minor concerns, for what really is a powerful movie in the traditional of masterpieces like William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) or Hal Ashby’s Coming Home (1978) – which was also took Kovic as its impression, although changed a lot. In Platoon, Stone made what likely remains the definitive, grunt’s eye view of the Vietnam War – not the best movie the war inspired, but that most likely most accurately reflects what it was like for most American soldiers in the war. In Born on the Fourth of July, he has made a portrait of the struggle of what came after – about reconciling the person you were before the war, to the person you are once it’s over – the anger that was felt for being used, and sacrificing without knowing the reason, while still having a deep love of your country. Stone won his best Best Director Oscar for the film (although, like Ang Lee winning for Life of Pi, it was pretty much by default, as the director of the Best Picture winner, in this case Bruce Beresford for Driving Miss Daisy, wasn’t nominated – so it was pretty much Stone, Peter Weir for Dead Poets Society or Jim Sheridan for My Left Foot in the running). The film doesn’t quite reach the heights of Platoon – but it comes close.