Sunday, June 1, 2014

CRACKER? Born on the 4th of July

I thought it would be appropriate with the developing scandal involving VA hospitals to review the best movie depicting treatment of wounded veterans.  Anyone familiar with the history of the treatment of American veterans since the Vietnam War could not have been surprised at this scandal.  When it first broke, my reaction was "no shit".  How pitiful that politicians profess to be shocked, shocked at what was happening.  How pitiful that some politicians want us to believe it is a recent (i.e., Obama) development.  I guess they have never seen "Born on the Fourth of July".



                “Born on the 4th 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.  Interestingly, the two veterans both won Bronze Stars and Purple Hearts.  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 4th of July parade featuring crippled veterans (including the real Kovic).  The crowd is very appreciative of the WWII veterans.  Next, we hear JFK urge young Americans to “Ask not…”  This trio of images establishes the template of pre-disillussioned America.  (Interestingly, the Kennedy of this film is urging young American boys to go to Vietnam whereas the Kennedy of Stone's "JFK" is killed for wanting us out!)
the next John Waynes

                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.

                The movie jumps forward to Kovic’s second tour in Vietnam.  His unit is attacking a village and find a whole family slaughtered.  The combat is visceral and graphic.  In the chaotic retreat, Kovic accidentally kills one of his men named Wilson.  When he tries to accept responsibility, his CO brushes the incident under the rug.  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.  He is given last rites, but survives to end up in the Bronx Veterans’ Hospital.

                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.  “Love it or leave it!”  Kovic also retains his misplaced confidence that he will walk again.  A broken leg ends his optimism and begins his descent into depression.

"Wait until my Conressman hear's about this!
Heads will roll!"
                His return home does not slow the descent.  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 4th 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?”  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.

"Well, I believe after Americans see our movie,
wounded veterans will be treated with repect!"
                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.  The weight has been lifted and Kovic begins his career as  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.

"We need to get out of this war and never go into
another war in Asia under false pretenses"
                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 this 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 reddish 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”!)

War
                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.
 
"Give me that Oscar!"
                .  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 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.  It is not the only Vietnam film that has done a credible job in this area.  On the other hand, “Born” opened people’s eyes to the plight of wounded veterans.  This depiction is rarer with the inferior “Coming Home” the obvious competitor.  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).

 Grade  =  A

HISTORY or HOLLYWOOD

1.       Kovic was on the high school wrestling team and lost in a championship match.

2.       He decided to enter the Marines after Marine recruiters came to talk to him and his classmates.

3.       His unit opened fire on a vollage without just cause.  Many civilaians were casualties in one particular hut.  They had to pull back when the enemy counterattacked.  In the confusion, Kovic shot and killed an American named Wilson who came running toward him.

4.       When he tried to report the friendly fire incident, his commanding officer did not want to hear about it.

5.       Kovic was wounded during an assault on a village.  He was first hit in the foot and then in the shoulder while returning fire.

6.       He spent several months In a Bronx Veterans hospital that was noted for rats, faulty equipment, uncaring personnel, and unsanitary conditions.

7.       Kovic was told he would never walk again but he worked hard at it until he broke his leg.

8.       He returns home in a wheelchair.  He is offered a job as a cashier by his friend who had refused to join the military.

9.       He rides in the 4th of July parade and has a flashback while giving a speech.

10.    Kovic goes to Syracuse University to see Donna (his unrequited love) and gets roughed up when he attends an anti-war rally that is broken up by the police.

11.    He starts drinking heavily and has a falling out with his mother.  He goes to join other crippled veterans in Mexico.  There he meets Charlie and has an affair with a whore who he erroneously feels is in love with him.

12.    He visits Wilson’s family and they accept his apology.

13.    Kovic joins the Vietnam Veterans Against the War and goes to the Republican Convention in Miami.  He speaks to the press in the hall during Nixon’s acceptance speech.  He is thrown out and arrested, but is rescued by other vets and leads a counterattack.

14.    He is invited to the Democratic Convention in 1976 and gives a speech.

Okay, so what are the correct answers?  Keep in mind that Kovic co-wrote the script and may have added some things that actually happened, but did not appear in the book.  But also keep in mind the other script writer was Stone.

1.       Kovic was on the high school wrestling team and lost in a championship match.  Histywood  Kovic was on the wrestling team, but the memoir does not mention the match portrayed in the movie.

2.       He decided to enter the Marines after Marine recruiters came to talk to him and his classmates.  History

3.       His unit opened fire on a village without just cause.  Many civilians were casualties in one particular hut.  They had to pull back when the enemy counterattacked.  In the confusion, Kovic shot and killed an American named Wilson who came running toward him.  History  Both incidents occurred pretty much as depicted in the film, but they were two separate incidents. The attack that resulted in the civilian casualties did not end with an enemy counterattack.  The wounded civilians were medevaced, not abandoned as in the film.  The killing of Wilson occurred on a patrol and it was at night.

4.       When he tried to report the friendly fire incident, his commanding officer did not want to hear about it.  History

5.       Kovic was wounded during an assault on a village.  He was first hit in the foot and then in the shoulder while returning fire.  History

6.       He spent several months In a Bronx Veterans hospital that was noted for rats, faulty equipment, uncaring personnel, and unsanitary conditions.  History

7.       Kovic was told he would never walk again but he worked hard at it until he broke his leg.  Histywood  He did attempt to walk again, but the broken leg occurred after he left the hospital and was in college.

8.       He returns home in a wheelchair.  He is offered a job as a cashier by his friend who had refused to join the military.  Histywood  Kovic does return home similar to the movie, but the book does not mention the friend (Steve Boyer in the movie) who was a pacifist/capitalist.

9.       He rides in the 4th of July parade and has a flashback while giving a speech.  Histywood  Kovic did ride in the parade, but he was with another disabled vet.  He was on the grandstand, but did not give a speech.  Tommy Law did come up and take him away afterwards.

10.    Kovic goes to Syracuse University to see Donna (his unrequited love) and gets roughed up when he attends an anti-war rally that is broken up by the police.  Hollywood  He does not mention Donna in the book.  He was attending college when he went to a peace rally, but he listened from his car.  Later he went to a demonstration in Washington, DC with a friend named Skip.  They ended at the Reflecting Pool where the police waded into the waders.  The violence was similar to that of the film with Skip wheeling him away to the Lincoln Memorial.  He was not himself attacked.  In the book, this is the incident that made him a militant. 

11.    He starts drinking heavily and has a falling out with his mother.  He goes to join other crippled veterans in Mexico.  There he meets Charlie and has an affair with a whore who he erroneously feels is in love with him.  Histywood  The book does not dwell on his relationship with his mother, the movie probably exaggerated this dynamic.  He did go to Mexico and live with a community of veterans in a town known as the Village of the Sun.  One of his friends was named Charlie and the incident with the taxi was true.  After this he went back to the States and then broke his leg and spent six months in a hospital.  Although he slept around with a lot of prostitutes in Mexico, there was no relationship like depicted in the film.

12.    He visits Wilson’s family and they accept his apology.  Hollywood

13.    Kovic joins the Vietnam Veterans Against the War and goes to the Republican Convention in Miami.  He speaks to the press in the hall during Nixon’s acceptance speech.  He is thrown out and arrested, but is rescued by other vets and leads a counterattack.  Histywood  Kovic had moved to California and was living with a friend named Kenny when he attended a meeting of the VVAW.  He started giving speeches and appearing on TV.  The arresting by an undercover cop masquerading as a veteran occurred at a different protest and he did end up in jail.  At the Convention, he was interviewed on the floor by Roger Mudd, but it was before the Nixon speech.  He was removed during the Nixon speech for yelling anti-war slogans.

14.    He is invited to the Democratic Convention in 1976 and gives a speech.  History
 
 
Accuracy Rating  =  .64
 
                All things considered, "Born on the Fourth of July" is admirably accurate.  Some of the
       inaccuracies are designed to advance the themes and since Kovic had a hand in the production, we can assume he was okay with the liberties Stone took.  Of course, this does not excuse inventing a character like Donna.  It is more acceptable to combine some incidents for time and plot purposes.  The biggest strength of the movie accuracy-wise is Cruise's portrayal of Kovic.  The Kovic of the movie is the Kovic of the film.  Cruise channels Kovic and the extreme emotions Kovic writes about in his book are apparent in the film. 
 
BOOK vs. MOVIE
 
                  I should remind my readers that I am a strong believer that a movie should be better than the book it is based upon. The screenwriter has the luxury of taking the best elements of the book and then making whatever improvements to enhance the entertainment value of the story.  Unless the book is such that the director can not replicate it due to technical, budgetary, or time constraints, the movie should be better than the book.  In this case, I am going to call it a tie because although the movie is an outstanding rendering of the book, the book is more personal and passionate than the movie.  The book is more likely to get under your skin.  Also, the book is surprisingly more formalistic than the movie.  The book is nonlinear.  It skips between first and third person (sometimes within the same chapter).  There are parts where Kovic speaks in stream of consciousness - something movies have a hard time depicting.  The book has the luxury of developing the theme of a broken and unfulfilled life without being too maudlin.  You can digest the emotions Kovic went through without being distracted with what a great acting job Cruise was doing.
 
This image from "Born" looks like the flag in "Saving Private Ryan".  The GIs
and Grunts fought and died for the same flag.  Why were they treated so
differently afterwards?

the trailer

 
 
 
 
   

4 comments:

  1. Excellent review. Like you, I was stunned by Cruise's performance when I first saw it, and I am also not eager to watch it again, because it is such a powerful movie. A perfect example of film's ability to educate and entertain.

    ReplyDelete
  2. the war movie buffJune 2, 2014 at 8:11 AM

    Thanks. Maybe Cruise and Stone need to make another movie together. They seem to bring out the best in each other. I feel sorry for Cruise in this case because he had to go up against Daniel Day-Lewis for "My Left Foot". Any other year, he would have won Best Actor. The next year Jeremy Irons won for "Reversal of Fortune". I can clearly remember when it would be said "well, he's still young, he'll get his Oscar eventually". That seems highly unlikely now considering his reputation.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Very good review. This is one I've watched at the beginning of my blog but never reviewed as I had to recover first. I watched it without knowing a lot and those hospital scenes - among many others - realy got to me.
    So shocking. I think - while I would include it in a best of war movies list as it's less about the war than about its fallout -it's an amazing movie.
    I was counting how often I've said "I don't really like Tom Cruise ..." in the past. Meanwhile I think - it's not actually true in my case. I love him as an actor but I don't like the man. He's really given some stellar performances.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I have the same feelings toward Cruise. I actually have more antipathy toward Stone because I feel he is pompous and I disagree with his politics.

    ReplyDelete

Please fell free to comment. I would love to hear what you think and will respond.