Saturday, September 15, 2012

CRACKER? Born on the Fourth of July

               “Born on the Fourth of July” is the second in Oliver Stone’s Vietnam trilogy.  It was released in 1989.  It is sandwiched between “Platoon” and “Heaven and Earth”.  The film shares eleven actors with “Platoon”.  It is based on the memoir by Ron Kovic who wrote the script with Stone.  Kovic was on set to counsel Cruise.  Interestingly, the two veterans (Kovic and Stone) both won Bronze Stars and Purple Hearts.  Kovic gave his Bronze Star to Cruise at the end of the film.  Stone also produced and directed the film.  It was a huge success at the box office and with critics.  It was nominated for eight Oscars and won for Director and Film Editing.

                The movie opens symbolically with a young Kovic playing war – an American rite of passage.  This flows into a Fourth of July parade featuring crippled veterans (including the real Kovic).  Next, he listens to an inspiring speech by JFK.  This trio of images establishes the template of pre-disillussioned ("Leave it to Beaver") America.

                Kovic is recruited by the Marines and seduced by the desire to “find out if you got what it takes.”  He doesn’t want to miss the chance to go toe to toe with Communism.   In a twist, his veteran father (Raymond Barry) is not thrilled, but his mother (Caroline Kava) is supportive.

he's not playing war now
                The movie jumps abruptly forward to Kovic’s second tour in Vietnam.  The viewer is wrenched out of their comfort zone as is Kovic.  His unit is attacking a village and find a whole family slaughtered accidentally by the Marines.  The combat is visceral and graphic.  In the chaotic retreat, Kovic kills one of his men named Wilson in a friendly fire incident.  When he tries to accept responsibility, his CO brushes the incident under the rug  (standard operating procedure).  This adds to Kovic’s anguish and creates an ominous vibe.  Sure enough, in the next combat set piece, Kovic is badly wounded in the assault on another ville.  The action is intense and frenetic.  Both scenes evidence the “fog of war”.  Tragically, the military hospital is more hellish than the front line.  He is given last rites, but survives to end up in the Bronx Veterans’ Hospital.

the tannish tinged lensing
                The hospital is like Purgatory.  Viewers eyes are opened to how our warriors were treated by the system they fought for.  Rats, filth, uncaring staff, drug abuse, faulty equipment.  (This makes it even more damning that some similar examples of mistreatment greeted veterans of Iraq!)  In spite of this, Kovic remains a hawk and rails against anti-war protestors.  “America, love it or leave it!”  Kovic's athletic competitiveness makes him believe that he will walk again.  A broken leg ends his optimism and begins his descent into depression.  He will be in a wheelchair the rest of his life.

                His return home does not slow the descent.  The detached
atmosphere is similar to what faced Paul Baumer on leave in "All Quiet" and Michael coming home in "The Deer Hunter".  He is full of self-pity. The America he was proud to fight for is indifferent to his sacrifice.  He starts drinking heavily and who can blame him?  The family is dysfunctional with an anti-war brother to quarrel with and a mother who cannot deal with the broken copy of her golden boy.  The movie comes full circle with another Fourth of July parade.  Although predictable with its hippies causing trouble, the scene is a great bookend.  Even the requisite PTSD flinching at the fireworks and the failed speech with flashbacks do not feel clicheish.

                The worm turns when Kovic is caught up in a protest at Syracuse University.  During a speech by Abbie Hoffman, the police wade into the crowd with tear gas and billy clubs. This leads to a drunken rant against his mother and the heart-rending “who’s gonna love me, dad?”  This movie packs an emotional wallop.  He has to leave home now. 

                The third stage of his life takes him to a seedy town in Mexico inhabited by other mentally and physically damaged veterans.  It’s a life of frustrated whoring and binge drinking.  Kovic poignantly falls in love with a “whore with a heart of gold”  only to discover it’s just a job to her.  He leaves this “home” with his friend Charlie (Willem Dafoe) only to end up at rock bottom in a wheel chair fight on a deserted highway.  It’s more powerful than pathetic.

                The fourth stage begins with a soul-cleansing visit to Wilson’s family to tell them the truth about their son’s death.  Their reaction is genuine and sincere and very Middle American.  A weight has been lifted and Kovic begins his career as a fixture in the anti-war movement.  The climax of this evolution from naïve patriot to patriotic dissenter comes at the 1972 Republican Convention where Kovic and others disrupt Nixon’s speech and get violently throw out of the hall.

                Here’s a cliché for you;  “I’m not a big Tom Cruise (Oliver Stone) fan, but…”  How often do you hear that?  This is one of those movies where both men are at their best.  I had not seen it in years and did not look forward to reviewing it with relish.  I was wrong.  It is a very impressive movie.  There are few weaknesses.  Stone controls himself (you know how he can be) and deserved the Oscar as Best Director.  It is astounding that the movie lost to “Driving Miss Daisy”.  You can definitely argue that was more egregious than the infamous “Shakespeare in Love” win over “Saving Private Ryan”.  The cinematography of Robert Richardson mixes chromes to match the moods.  For instance, the combat scenes have a tannish tinge.  (It lost to “Glory”.)  The two combat scenes stand out for me, of course.  Richardson uses a hand-held and gets the you-are-there feel that has become common in modern war films.  The soundtrack by John Williams was also nominated (losing to “The Little Mermaid”!).  It matches the mood perfectly. 

                The acting is outstanding.  Cruise is amazing and must have finished second to Daniel Day-Lewis.  He is fully into a role that took great physical commitment.  Leave your feelings about him at the door and admire his performance.  The other standout is Defoe.  Their scenes together are highlights.  You can easily imagine Charlie as Elias from "Platoon" if he had survived the war.

                  In less capable hands, the movie could have been maudlin and heavy-handed.  Stone is obviously sending a message, but he does not bludgeon us with it.  The overall theme is simple: the evolution of a patriotic warrior to a disillusioned pacifist.  The arc is realistic mainly because it’s a true story.  Kovic’s role in the production gives it cred.  It makes it difficult to doubt the accuracy.  However, the two protest scenes (Syracuse and the Convention) are up-violenced for understandable reasons.  These are not major flaws.

                  Although Stone struck out with “Heaven and Earth”, the first two in his trilogy are important films.  “Platoon” has lost luster for many war movie fans (not me), but the fact is that it opened the Vietnam combat experience to many Americans for the first time.  Its theme is the effects of war on the young and naive.   On the other hand, “Born” opened people’s eyes to the plight of the wounded veteran.  Its theme is the effects of the post-war on the naively patriotic.  This theme is rarer with the inferior “Coming Home” the obvious competitor.  "Birdy" is a similarly themed film that you might want to check out.  The sad thing is the limited impact it had on treatment of future veterans.  It also should be mentioned that the movie did the service of bringing Ron Kovic to public recognition.  For the Vietnam War, it is appropriate that we get a crippled, but resilient hero to replace Col. Kirby of “The Green Berets” (a movie that is the polar opposite of this movie).
                 Does it crack the 100 Best?  Definitely!  "Platoon" is #9 and although I still believe it is the better film, "Born on the Fourth of July" is not that far behind.  It is hard to imagine how it did not make Military History magazine's Greatest 100 list.
Grade = A
the trailer
the wounding
TRAILER -  Excellent.  Great use of the song "Stop, Hey What's That Sound".  Gives a clear impression of the plot arc.  grade = A
POSTER -  A little too simplistic.  Makes it look like a regular war movie.  Does have the flag which appropriate because its a recurring motif in the film.  grade =  C


  1. I watched this for the first time last year and have still not reviewed it as I wanted to approach it from a specific angle...I will do it in a little while, I hope. I think it's an outstanding movie and was much better than I expected it to be. I actually was afraid it might be obnoxious.
    This is one of Cruise's best performances ever. Not an easy role. That hospital scene is so shocking.
    This would certainly make my Top 100, maybe Top 50 even. I find it's message pretty timeless.

    1. I look forward to your review and I am intrigued as to what approach you will take.

  2. I have not seen it for a while but I remember being really impressed with pretty much everything, especially the real Kovic's willingness to have intense personal experiences portrayed on the screen, which I thought was pretty brave. Definitely needs to be in the top 100. I liked Coming Home but I saw it too long ago to compare it to Born on the Fourth. Birdy was kind of strange, good but strange.

    1. You and I think alike which makes you a brilliant individual. LOL I need to write my review of "Coming Home". Not a big fan. I reviewed "Birdy" at:


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