Born on the Fourth of July
Reviewed in Summer 1998
Director: Oliver Stone. Cast: Tom Cruise, Willem Dafoe, Kyra Sedgwick, Caroline Kava, Raymond J. Barry, Frank Whaley, Tom Berenger, Bryan Larkin. Screenplay: Oliver Stone and Ron Kovic (based on the book by Ron Kovic).

Photo © 1989 Universal Pictures/Ixtlan
A forceful and admirably heartfelt performance by Tom Cruise galvanizes this picture, which should be more powerful than it is considering the darkness and fullness of the emotions at its center. Cruise plays Ron Kovic, the real-life Vietnam War vet who returned home in a wheelchair and found himself disgusted with the anti-patriotism and cruel apathy of the home front. The rejection dealt to him by his nation and community, even by parts of his family, leaves Kovic with no supportive environment in which to cope with his horrific memories of battle, particularly of a shocking and, through the always-reliable Robert Richardson's camera, stunningly rendered episode in which he confusedly shot a comrade whom he believed to be a Vietnamese would-be assassin. The only group that will welcome Kovic's membership anymore is the legion of war veterans who have found themselves similarly disenfranchised upon their return to the U.S.A.; they alone understand Kovic's anger and fear, as well as the sources of each, but as men who cannot help themselves, they are only fitfully able to help one another.

Charges that Oliver Stone had over-played the Vietnam card by following Platoon with this picture were formally dismissed by the second Oscar and Golden Globe Awards he received for hiw work here, but the public never did cleave to the wounded souls of Born on the Fourth as they had to the characters of the earlier film. The problem, I suspect, is not with what remains constant between the pictures: the war theme, the male-heavy cast, or the rumbling and bitter politics. Rather, where Born on the Fourth of July suffers in comparison to Platoon and, for that matter, to most of Stone's work as a director, is in its essential straightforwardness.

Stone, Cruise, and the rest of the cast and crew approach Kovic's story with an earnestness that is appropriate and even admirable, but Stone's greatest strength gift as a director is in placing familiar material in fresh, some would say deranged contexts: JFK's assassination as a tawdry murder mystery, Richard Nixon's life as a Shakespearean tragedy, or the Vietnam of Platoon as a stark morality play where the whole spectrum of Good to Evil ran within the American forces. Born on the Fourth of July is a true-life tale so powerful and instructional that the material requires only a solid craftsman, not an original thinker; those voices who would dispute Kovic's claim to heroicism or deny his remembered outrage at America's reception of its veterans are either left out of the film altogether or summarily dismissed as ghoulish and insupportable bogeymen. Stone, therefore minus the need to inflame or reimagine the material, seems subdued and, dare I say?, ordinary. He just points and shoots the camera, even though the story he tells is of a war where simply pointing and shooting was never a guarantee of success. Grade: B

Academy Award Nominations and Winners:
Best Picture
Best Director: Oliver Stone
Best Actor: Tom Cruise
Best Adapted Screenplay: Oliver Stone and Ron Kovic
Best Cinematography: Robert Richardson
Best Original Score: John Williams
Best Film Editing: David Brenner and Joe Hutshing
Best Sound: Michael Minkler, Gregory H. Watkins, Wylie Stateman, and Tod A. Maitland

Golden Globe Nominations and Winners:
Best Picture (Drama)
Best Director: Oliver Stone
Best Actor (Drama): Tom Cruise
Best Screenplay: Oliver Stone and Ron Kovic
Best Original Score: John Williams

Other Awards:
Directors Guild of America: Best Director

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