Born on the Fourth of July (1989)

Directed by Oliver Stone

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Born on the Fourth of July is a true anti-war film.  The story is based on a book written by Ron Kovic, the character played by Tom Cruise.  As detailed in the film, Kovic was eighteen years old and extremely gung ho about fighting for his country in the Vietnam War where he was injured and paralyzed.  Even after returning home, Kovic maintained a stubborn patriotism and was offended to see the way his country back home looked at the war.

Soon Kovic embarks on a journey of, well, I guess it’s self-discovery.  He travels to Mexico, struggles to adapt to life at home, and after reaching his breaking point, Kovic finally turns against the war, accepting that the U.S. government lied to people like him, and he believed it.

Born on the Fourth of July has its powerful moments, but it’s weighed down by Tom Cruise’s mustache.  The story spans about a decade and a half, and Kovic goes through a handful of hairstyles as time passes, something kind of like the transformation in Forrest Gump.

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Cruise brings a manic energy to the performance that strongly captures the sense of deranged optimism, militant patriotism, desperate fear and militant activism that marks the turning points in Kovic’s life.  He’s a character who experiences such wild swings in his character arc, and the movie often feels like several different types of movies.

The beginning is full of sentimental hope, nostalgic for a time in America that may feel as though it was much more serene than it really was.  Kovic and his family watch John F. Kennedy deliver his inaugural address (“…ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country…”), and soon Kovic has enlisted in the army.

In the war, everything is filmed in silhouette or slow motion as we descend into the horror movie that will frame Kovic’s stay in a Bronx military hospital.  This feels like something out of Saw, with Kovic physically restrained by machines that feel both incredibly old and strangely foreign.

Soon he’s back in the real world, struggling to readjust to a life that has almost passed him by.  It takes him a while to change with it, moving from the “love it or leave it” Ron to  the Ron who more closely resembles Lt. Dan from Forrest Gump.

Ron’s character arc mostly culminates with a visit to the parents of a fellow marine he accidentally killed, something that has understandably haunted him all these years.  With that purpose fulfilled, he joins the anti-war protests as just another face among the crowd.  It’s no longer about Ron, it’s about what he represents.

Nearly arrested at the 1972 Republican National Convention, we fast forward to see Ron about to come onstage, delivering a speech at the 1976 convention, paying off a heavy-handed premonition his mother has when he’s a kid.  While they watch Kennedy’s speech in 1960, she tells him that she has a vision of him delivering a speech to a large crowd just like that.  The moment she says that, you know it’s going to happen, so it’s a little much.

That bookend to the film is neat, but I found the most powerful part to be when Ron and the others are forced out of the 1972 convention.  Limited to their wheelchairs, rocking their long hair and mustaches, they stand out in stark contrast from the neatly dressed, conventionally trimmed men and women at the convention who nastily yell at them to get out while Nixon delivers a speech.  It’s troubling to watch, of course, because we’ve been forced to see just how much Kovic has suffered for this country and how ruthlessly people turn on him, either because they don’t realize how the government has lied to them or because they don’t care.

Born on the Fourth of July was directed by Oliver Stone, himself a former Vietnam veteran, the same age as Kovic.  The film uses Kovic’s story as a stand in for the entire country.  We entered the Vietnam War thinking it necessary to defend the world from the spread of communism like the second world war was necessary to fight the axis powers.

Kovic goes in one man and comes out another, a person who is rejected by his own country.  The war not only disenchanted those at home, but it caused a huge rift that might still be there today.  No war has been the same since, with its supporters and protestors.  And maybe the second world war wasn’t as universally supported as I imagine it was, but the films about World War II focus on the intense patriotism that bound its soldiers.  The focus on World War II often seems to be what we had to do to defend our freedom, and the focus of the Vietnam War seems to be more about what it did to our soldiers and to us as a whole, how it revealed something rotten at our core.

So, while many films claim to be anti-war, this one truly is.  It’s a bit contradictory to be ‘anti-war’ and yet spend so much of a movie’s runtime bathing in the cinematic appeal and drama of a battle scene.  Something like Hacksaw Ridge certainly glorifies it.  Born on the Fourth of July, though, shows just as much of the battle as it has to.  The rest of the ride follows Kovic’s misguided enthusiasm and subsequent identity change.

Up Next: Sunset Boulevard (1950), Me and Orson Welles (2008), What If (2013)

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