With the Fourth of July earlier this week, I thought I would revisit a war classic, “Born on the Fourth of July,” for this week’s column.
“Born on the Fourth of July” hits you in the gut like a hammer. More than 20 years after its release, the film is still hard-edged and brutal, uncompromising in its depiction of the Vietnam War and the scars it left on one man, Ron Kovic, who fought in it.
The film’s director, Oliver Stone, famously based his Oscar-winning Vietnam film “Platoon” on his experiences in the war. That film had a charged, visceral quality to it, as if Stone were channeling the energy of combat he remembered all too vividly. “Born” is more reflective, and feels like it was made from a place of deep pain and anger.
“Born” follows the story of Kovic, who fought in Vietnam, was paralyzed there and came back to find a country divided over the war, with many looking at him as a murderer rather than a hero. After slipping into alcoholism and deep depression, he emerged a fervent anti-war activist advocating against the evils of Vietnam.
Stone, I learned, had a similar experience after returning from the war, and channels his own rage and confusion into Kovic’s story. The film is based on a memoir written by Kovic, who collaborated with Stone on the screenplay. They produced a film that is very political, but don’t lose sight of the unbearable sadness in Kovic’s story, the sadness of fighting a war he later came to feel was wasteful and unjust. In engaging with Kovic’s experience, Stone pays tribute to a generation that went to Vietnam as idealistic warriors and came back shattered men.
The film starts with Kovic (Tom Cruise) growing up on Long Island. Stone paints him as a hard-working, intelligent youth, the favored child of a meek father (Raymond J. Barry) and a strictly religious mother (Caroline Kava). Having grown up on the war stories of his father and grandfather, he feels destined to enter the armed services. When Vietnam breaks out, he is itching to be on the frontlines, and enlists.
In the film’s early scenes, Stone places Kovic in a safe, loving environment, almost idyllic in its innocence. Cruise plays the early notes of his character with tones of bravado; spewing patriotic rhetoric about stopping communism, he feels he is ready to die for is country. Once the film slams into Vietnam, we start to see the bravado slip until he resembles a frightened boy.
We watch him fight bravely, but also commit atrocities, as when he and his platoon inadvertently massacre peaceful villagers. In another scene, he accidentally kills a fellow marine during battle and is dismissed by his commanding officer when he tries to confess. During another battle, he is wounded through the shoulder, and becomes paralyzed from the chest down.
The film’s most harrowing scenes come with Kovic’s recovery. Stone directs them with bruising honesty, following Kovic’s suffering down to the smallest detail. After he is wounded, he is taken field hospital where a priest stands over him and says “try not to die,” just before reading him his last rights. Stone lets the camera drift in and out of focus in this scene, emphasizing Kovic’s disorientation as he watches other men be carried in off the battlefield with their own heinous injuries.
Kovic is sent to a veteran’s hospital in New York to recover. Over-burdened and under-funded, the hospital is a rat-infested slum. Kovic is told he will never walk again, but is determined to at least move on crutches. He takes a nasty fall in a corridor that leaves him with a badly wounded leg. The doctors fear they will have to amputate. Kovic will hear none of this, even though he’ll never have feeling in the leg again; the leg is his, and he would rather suffer to keep it rather than let them cut it off.
Kovic returns home a hero, but slowly starts to deteriorate emotionally. He spouts patriotically at the dinner table about Vietnam, but his younger siblings are against the war, and feel disconnected from him. He tries to maintain a happy exterior, but we see the sadness in Cruise’s face every time someone looks pityingly at him in his wheelchair. Talking to another vet (Frank Whaley), Kovic reflects that he might have changed every decision he made if he could just have his body back.
Cruise carries the film, deliver-
ing an extremely powerful,
heartbreaking performance. Known primarily as a young hearthrob before “Born,” his performance as Kovic cemented him as a serious actor. He manages to move convincingly between the different stages of the character’s pain, from disillusionment into alcoholism and into eventual redemption. So much of the character’s pain can simply be read in Cruise’s eyes and face. You feel the confusion of a man who began with so much promise and is left to pick up the pieces in an already broken life.
Stone has been criticized throughout his career for the paranoia and historical revisionism of his films. It is easy to forget his talent as a director. While films like “JFK,” “The Doors” and “Nixon” demonstrate his skill as a visual storyteller, “Born” showed him as compassionate, empathetic filmmaker, able to see deeply into the torment of his subject. The film provided him with his second directing Oscar.
The film is long and, at times, difficult to watch. Stone is skillful in the way he is able to depict Kovic’s pain without exploiting it. And Cruise is magnetic in a performance you can’t take your eyes off of. I’ve heard the film labeled as depressing quite a bit over the years. I disagree. It takes you through the ringer, yes, but makes you feel the better for it by the time it is over. Deeply moving is a better label for it.
Dennis O’Neil can be reached at 270-887-3237 or email@example.com.