Born on the Fourth of July (United States, 1989)

August 23, 2009
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Born on the Fourth of July Poster

Born on the Fourth of July is the middle chapter of Oliver Stone's so-called "Vietnam Trilogy." Begun with Platoon and concluded with Heaven and Earth, these movies are linked only by their connection to the war; they have no common characters. Platoon is by far the strongest - a punch to the gut that illustrates the "war is hell" mantra as forcefully as any motion picture. Heaven and Earth is the weakest, although it has its moments. Nestled in between is Born on the Fourth of July, which is a little uneven but nevertheless powerful in its own way. It's less about war than it is about disillusionment.

The movie is based on the real-life story of Ron Kovic (played by Tom Cruise), a decorated Marine who was in his second tour of duty in Vietnam when he was critically injured. Upon his return to the United States, Kovic became a vocal anti-war protestor whose military record gave him more credibility than the numerous hippies and college students whom critics lambasted for "dodging" service to their country. Stone, also a Vietnam Vet, saw in Kovic's story the material to fashion a compelling feature. Even though Vietnam was a thing of the past in 1988, when the film went into production, Stone saw its themes as being universal and produced Born on the Fourth of July not only as a record of the past but as a cautionary tale for the future. Unsurprisingly, Kovic was back in action during the early 1990s protesting the Gulf War and has more recently led demonstrations against the War in Iraq.

Born on the Fourth of July is divided neatly into four pieces. The first, which transpires entirely in Massapequa, New York between the late 1950s and 1964, traces the childhood of Kovic, who grows up in a fiercely patriot household. His parents (Raymond J. Barry and Caroline Kava) are fierce supporters of the country and devout Roman Catholics. Kovic, inspired by a presentation given by a Marine (a cameo by Tom Berenger), signs up out of high school and is on his way to Vietnam by December 1965, leaving behind his family and his girlfriend, Donna (Kyra Sedgwick). This segment of Born on the Fourth of July is filmed by Stone with an abundance of nostalgic elements. The lighting and colors hint at a time-clouded innocence. The style, which evokes Capra, is overly romantic. Stone is, of course, setting us up. He wants us to buy into this idealized, insulated way of life in order for what comes after to have maximum impact.

The "in country" portion of the film is the shortest. It picks up the action in October 1968, when Kovic, now a sergeant and well-respected member of his platoon, is in his second tour of duty. While on patrol, an error in the received intelligence leads to a civilian massacre, and Kovic is shaken. During the retreat, he mistakes one of his men for an enemy and accidentally kills him. The XO exonerates Kovic, ignoring his claims of "friendly fire," and informs the sergeant that things like this happen in the confusion of battle. Three months later, Kovic is seriously wounded in another engagement - an incident that ends his battlefield involvement in the war. Stone's approach to the fight segments in Born on the Fourth of July are similar to those in Platoon - short, brutal, and unflinching. He is more interested in showing the bloody, inglorious elements of war as opposed to those promoted in military recruiting films.

Kovic's rehab at the Bronx V.A. hospital is perhaps the most disconcerting episode in the film, depicting as it does the deplorable conditions that existed in the government-run facilities established to treat injured soldiers. Paralyzed from the waist down, Kovic does his best to maintain a positive mental attitude and is obsessive about rehabbing, despite his surroundings. Drugs are rampant in the hospital, rats wander freely (one patient is advised to feed them to keep them happy), and the equipment is old. When Kovic falls and fractures his leg, he must undergo a long and torturous treatment to avoid amputation. Eventually, he leaves the hospital and returns to Massapequa, where he is hailed as a hero.

Born on the Fourth of July's final hour is devoted Kovic's change from war-supporter to rabid anti-war activist. It's here that Stone is at his least effective, perhaps because of time constraints. Kovic's transformation feels hurried and incomplete. Although one can intellectually understand why his experiences on the battlefield and in the hospital turned him against the war, the film isn't emotionally convincing. When Kovic initially returns home, he is still a defender of the action in Vietnam. It's only after attending an anti-war rally that he changes his position. Once he has become a war protester, Born on the Fourth of July plays like a "greatest hits" collection, recounting key points in Kovic's life between 1970 and 1976, but losing some of the character in the process. As a result, the movie's final half hour is neither as arresting nor as well-paced as what precedes it.

The thing best accomplished by Born on the Fourth of July is its contrasting of the glorious illusion of war as seen from thousands of miles away to the barbarity of it up-close. Kovic's change in perspective becomes the filter through which we view Vietnam. His gradual disillusionment with the government and the military is given weight because of events in his life. He is credible because he has been involved in activities that many pro-war and anti-war activists have seen only from afar. The only thing missing from Born on the Fourth of July is a more complete accounting of Kovic's shift in perspective. We get pieces of it, but by the time it happens, Stone is moving the narrative forward at such a fast pace that it feels more like a necessary development than an organic aspect of the story. The scenes in Mexico, where Kovic goes to forget about the war, are thematically supportive, but they damage the pacing. This interlude, which features a bizarre appearance by Willem Dafoe, feels self-indulgent and doesn't tell us anything about the character we don't already know from his alcoholic binges and anti-religious tirades. Stone, who has such a powerful grasp on the story when it comes to setting it up and delivering the payoff, has trouble with the more mundane aspects of clearing the final hurdles necessary to bring about a sense of closure. Once Kovic has returned to Massapequa, the best parts of Born on the Fourth of July are in the rearview mirror.

When the film was released in late 1989, much of the talk surrounded the performance of Tom Cruise. This was Cruise's first opportunity to play a role with gravitas and, in many ways, Kovic is the antithesis of his best-known part, the cocky flyboy in Top Gun. It's a strong, eye-opening portrayal, and it earned Cruise a number of acting awards and nominations. (He was nominated for an Oscar, but did not win; he took top honors at the Golden Globes.) His work in the movie paved the way for a greater variety of parts in the 1990s; however, this recognition was a double-edged sword. His box office popularity dipped as he became less attractive with that portion of the audience that only wanted him to flash his smile and bare his chest.

Born on the Fourth of July didn't bring Stone the same degree of critical applause he won with Platoon, but it was close. Despite some of its third-act structural deficiencies, it is nevertheless a compelling story, and Kovic was available to testify to the essential truth of most of what's in the movie. In addition to emphasizing Platoon's theme about the horrors of what can happen deep within the zone of chaos and bloodlust, Born on the Fourth of July addresses the ineffective way in which men who fought in Vietnam were re-integrated into the society they had battled to protect. (There's a weird kinship with First Blood here.) The deplorable way in which returning soldiers were treated after Vietnam has not been repeated with future conflicts. Attempts have been made, especially in the media, to show support for soldiers even when the war is unpopular.

When Stone made this movie in 1988-89, he was looking back roughly 15 years; the intervening time has served only to sharpen the focus. Nothing about Born on the Fourth of July is dated; it remains an involving tale of innocence lost and of war and its unintended consequences.

Born on the Fourth of July (United States, 1989)

Run Time: 2:18
U.S. Release Date: 1989-12-20
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2:35:1