Born on the Fourth of July (1989, Oliver Stone)
Never one of the cinema’s great masters of subtlety, Oliver Stone netted two Academy Awards in the ’80s for films about the Vietnam War, a subject near and dear to him. Whereas Platoon, the archetypal combat movie, was a conventional and almost blank-slated war picture, Born of the Fourth of July is the story of a boy who longs for war and is then broken by it — and must find his own meaning in the loss. That boy is Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic, who’s lived a life more than worthy of being filmed — but, one wishes, by someone besides this director. Stone’s lunkheaded, broad sentimentalism remains insufferable (and he’s aided this time by the equally gooey John Williams); the entire first act of the picture consists of establishing Kovic as an all-American guy’s guy, who fawns for the right girl and has the right ideology and prays to the right Jesus and has the right two-parent household and plays on the right wrestling team and works for the right grocery store (his dad’s). It’s all here: being a cutie at a parade down to landing a kiss on prom night to the tune of “Moon River.” It’s saccharine to the point of inducing illness — and since it’s a Stone film, it also must feel like a U.S. History class, with much emphasis on the Kennedy-Nixon debates, yet remain straingely absent of the kind of personal details that might lend it actual resonance.
Adding to the problematic nature of Born is the casting of then-boy wonder Tom Cruise as Kovic. Many miles away from the dismal yuppie figure of Rain Man, the action star of Top Gun or the teen hero of Risky Business, this is Cruise the attempted Serious Actor, albeit occasionally with a shadow of a toy airplane behind him, culminating a decade of dead-eyed roles. In the early parts of the film, Stone dresses Cruise up as a teenager and shoots him from high angles, a choice so off-putting you wonder why he didn’t go all the way and have him configured as the preteen Kovic at the start of the film with the magic of visual effects. Yet the freakishly creepy “young man” Cruise isn’t even the most artificial thing in these early sequences, which trade in all sorts of Rockwellian nuclear-family stereotypes. “Communism has to be stopped,” goes one lighthearted dinner table conversation. “It’s God’s will.” With a Deer Hunter derived jump cut, we find ourselves in the thick of the war long enough for Kovic to become paralyzed, then back to the equal but quieter hell of hospital life, then to veteran camps and home where the suffering is denied until big apeshit midnight rants that indirectly imply Mom wrecked everything by not letting the boy read Playboy.
I understand that Stone intends to set up a lot of everyboy iconography in Cruise’s version of Kovic (Mickey Mantle on the radio, trophies everywhere, and war war war) so that he can break it all down as shorthand for the corrosive effect of war because that’s the way Stone thinks — in big bright colors and bombast — but it’s no excuse; The Best Years of Our Lives dealt with fictional people, showed no action onscreen, and still managed to do a better job of getting inside its characters’ heads and rendering real emotion from their plight. Though Stone’s film moves along at a clip, each sequence seems to exist independently from the others, and Cruise certainly can’t sell his gradual transformation to an antiwar activist, which in context here seems bizarrely sudden. After he returns from the Platoon cast reunion, Kovic remains a steadfast conservative for a while, one PTSD breakdown on stage notwithstanding, with plenty of bile reserved from creepy longhairs who take drugs and a lot of “love it or leave it.” Then the lovely girlfriend reveals her antiwar sentiments and suddenly… well, you know.
Whatever their source, though, Kovic and the film’s (and therefore Stone’s) politics are righteous, and in contrast to The Doors and JFK, this is a biography of an truly important American. Stone knows he has the wind at his back and liberally quotes All Quiet on the Western Front, Coming Home and Apocalypse Now while never once bristling at the terrible dialogue he’s putting into these guys’ mouths. (“Maybe I killed more babies than you did, you fuck!” “Fuck you!” “No, fuck you!”) It’s too bad you have to suffer through so much terrible, tone-deaf acting and tiresome soap opera slash Forrest Gump-level dramatics to reach the two brilliant sequences that prelude the end of the film.
First is an absolutely riveting confession by Kovic to the family of a boy he may have accidentally killed years earlier. Their response to this dark revelation is almost supernaturally even-handed and docile (and no wonder; it didn’t really happen), but in some sense this is a redemption, maybe unearned, for regular Americans’ role in the Vietnam War than for any actual and specific act of violence. (Moreover, the scene itself was later mirrored in Brokeback Mountain as a measure of how individual lives extrapolate and how parental love stretches or reinforces prejudice.) Secondly, something that did happen, presented vividly and with little Stone adornment: Kovic’s outbreak and protest at the 1972 Republican National Convention, featuring the most emotional acting of Tom Cruise’s entire career, a sob-inducing speech that seems to place all of the last five decades of American history into depressing perspective. (It’s telling that Jon Voight’s similar speech in Coming Home is also the best part of that film.)
It’s all very carefully engineered, almost bullying us into our emotional reactions. But in the age of the Drone, when I for one feel like I’m not doing enough about the grim direction our torture-promoting, surveillance-obsessed country is taking, that heartfelt RNC diatribe and its aftermath grab something deep down, and (to use this film’s favorite insult) spit in the face of something like The Deer Hunter. I hope we don’t have to wait fifteen years to see the wars of our own generation held in such harsh light by mainstream Hollywood but I have a bad feeling that may never happen at all. This film’s only a footnote in Kovic’s life but it’s as useful a way as any to continue to propagate his message.