Apologies if you’re looking for my review of Sweet Charity which was promised today in my Month in Film post. I did have a 4th of July movie I wanted to do and decided to watch it at the last second (it helped that I’ve had this for over four months and really wanted to return it to Netflix). In honor of the day celebrating our independence I went with Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July. I’ve never seen this and originally rented it because I was planning to use it in a Vietnam paper I wrote. Having studied so much about Vietnam in school over the last year I have to applaud Stone for creating a heart-wrenching, gut-punch of a film. I’m a huge fan of Stone (although is later output has been markedly weak) and thought he detailed the aftereffects of Vietnam with the brutality and sadness they deserve. If you’re sick of watching the same Fourth of July films (no disrespect to them) be sure to watch Born on the Fourth of July.
Ron Kovic (Tom Cruise) loves his country and when he gets offered the chance to enlist in the Marine Corps and enter Vietnam he does so whole-heartedly. Sadly, Kovic is shot and paralyzed from the chest down, forever relegated to a wheelchair. As he struggles to understand his new-found disability, and realizes the rest of the country is against the war he fought Kovic is forced to come to terms with himself and the cause he’s been fighting for.
The history of Vietnam films is a convoluted one, in fact audiences weren’t shown a film actually set and discussing the war until after the event had ended (the first actual Vietnam film is Deer Hunter in 1978). Born on the Fourth of July was usually played in my high school history class, and of course the year we got to discussing it my teacher didn’t show it to us. Since then I’ve been told it’s the foremost film focused on the aftermath of the war, showcasing how the veterans didn’t necessarily come back praised as heroes like their fathers did in WWII. Considering that director Oliver Stone is a Vietnam vet who discussed the war in detail in Platoon, this is cited as a quasi-sequel in a trilogy of Stone films looking at the effects of Vietnam in America. The film is also based on the real Ron Kovic’s book of the same name which I’m interested in reading now.
Stone foreshadows the war from the opening shots introducing young Ron Kovic playing war in a forest with his friends. The young boys blindly shooting each other, innocent and inexperienced, is not too far removed from the legions of young boys who had never held a gun in their hands set to fight. The 1950s time period Stone depicts is one of total innocence with some overly sentimental slow motion shots of baton twirling girls and baseball games. Since we all know how heinous Vietnam was, focusing on these innocent shots with slow motion just makes the point too direct and eye-roll inducing. It does do a solid job of showing the small-town atmosphere of the 1950s. The heavy-handed foreshadowing continues with Ron’s mother (Caroline Kava) calling Ron her “Yankee Doodle boy” and telling him about a dream she had about him giving a speech to people. Again, I know Stone likes to beat people over the head with meaning, and it does establish the events too come, but damn does the man not get subtlety. It seems everything in Ron’s life prepares him for war (which makes you wonder about the religious message Ron fights against throughout the second half of the story) as if he’s fated. When he goes to wrestling practice the rigors are like basic training. He’s constantly told by his coach to “kill.”
When Ron and his friends are talked to by a group of Marine Corps recruiters its obvious why the young men want to enlist. The men of the time period want to be “part of history” sure but their fathers and grandfathers have seen war. Ron wants to be like his father who fought in WWII. Vietnam is cited as America’s “dirty” war in comparison to WWI and WWII. Where the latter two wars were against a legitimate threat, Vietnam surrounded oil and the all-pervading fear of Communism, which one of the characters latter cites never came to pass. When Ron is discussing this need to fight with his friends the devout faith he has in this cause is evident, a testament to Cruise’s acting. I enjoy Tom Cruise’s movies but here the movie star persona hadn’t pervaded him yet and his performance is perfect. He believes firmly in the cause, in what he’s fighting for and there’s a light that shines in the actors eyes which makes his defeat when he returns home all the more crushing.
Stone espouses the notion that Vietnam played on America’s fear of the invisible, but deadly, threat of Communism. When Ron is into his second tour there’s a moment where his unit is in a village. His commanding officer starts pointing and asking Ron “see the rifles.” The camera whips back and forth, placing you in the eyes of Ron himself, and leaving you to ask if you see anything. It’s an astounding effect of showing how the mind’s power to believe is so strong that it can fool you into seeing what you want to see. You don’t see rifles but having someone scream at you to see them could entice you to think so, as it does to Ron. The entire concept of the war, in Stone’s eyes is here in this scene, that the US people were told to believe something that wasn’t there. This is fermented further when Ron believe the enemy is coming towards him but it’s simply Wilson, a fellow Marine that he shoots and kills. Even as the film progresses Ron’s mind is unable to determine whether he shot Wilson or not. And just in case you don’t think Stone presents the other side, the scene here does have the unit ambushed giving the opposing side the opportunity to say “hey the threat was real, but it could have been worse if not for that preëmptive strike.”
For a Vietnam film, Born on the Fourth of July isn’t completely set in Vietnam. There’s only a handful of scenes that take place there but they’re all highly disturbing from the baby crying in the village to Ron’s executive officer telling him “it’s very hard to understand what’s happening” after Ron confesses about Wilson. The double meaning in that statement extends not just to the immediate events of the scene but to the American people in general. Numerous political heads told news crews that it would be difficult to understand the government’s motives, but that the people had to trust they were right. Stone unabashedly says this is a lie and the film is 120 minutes of following an America where people were continually told what to believe, and how to come back from discovering they’d been had. The few battle scenes return us to that opening scene of boys playing in the forest as we’re shown how unprepared the US troops are. When they’re ambushed they’re told simply to retreat and hide.
The lack of compassion that works as a through line throughout the film starts once Ron is injured in the field. The doctors show little consideration for the wounded and dying soldiers calling them “crispy critters” and openly saying their doomed to die and moving on Medical professionals are all relatively apathetic in this film. Not only are the doctors in the field lacking benevolence but the hospital staff of the rehabilitation hospital in the Bronx where Ron recovers are rude and unsympathetic. In fact the facility itself is shown as crumbling and disgusting.
As if Ron’s life isn’t forever changed, once he returns to his simple Long Island home the film makes a point of saying how nothing is the same. Everyone, including Ron’s family and friends look at him differently with faces of pity, sadness and disappointment (especially from his mother). Ron tries his hardest to pretend everything’s okay but that’s not the case with the entire town casting judgement on him (it doesn’t help he’s one of the few men from the town who’s returned). The saddest thing is seeing Ron’s realization that his injury was in vain as numerous people around him are against the war now. He’s a man torn between individuality and a love for his country, so what is he to do with himself when he’s discovered his country doesn’t have his back? Again, the wealth of emotions presented is all hinging on Cruise’s performance which is amazing. You witness the transformation of an all-American boy into a jaded, crippled (emotionally as well as physically) name on a list. To heighten the disconnect between Ron and his roots, the town is shown as changed in a parade sequence. The once small mom and pop shops cater to stoners and the big chains while the people wave at Ron (then shake their heads in sadness) or are out-and-out hostile to him. It’s a stark contrast from heroes welcome awaiting WWII vets.
Suffice it to say that a lot happens in the films two-hour and twenty-four minute runtime, all of it astounding and featuring an amazing cast. The third act features Willem Dafoe as a fellow paralyzed soldier. Dafoe is introduced at his most charismatic and by the end he’s just as broken and cast-aside as Ron. The two screaming and spitting at each other in the desert, discussing whose killed more babies, is a contest in absurdity but it’s all the two men have to keep going, comparing whose suffered the most.
Born on the Fourth of July is one of the best war movies I’ve seen that deals strictly with the aftermath of the event. This isn’t Stone’s other feature, Platoon, but affects those who went as well as those left behind. As the fireworks shoot off tonight, be thankful and give Oliver Stone’s film a view.
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.