Universal // 1989 // 144 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Norman Short (Retired) // November 13th, 2000
A story of innocence lost and courage found.
Born on the Fourth of July is a graphic, unflinching look at the plight facing veterans and especially disabled veterans coming home from Vietnam. The story is told through the eyes of Ron Kovic, whose autobiography was the basis for the screenplay. The film is tough, hard to watch at times, and even painful but the power of it cannot be denied. Oscar Stone won his second Best Director Oscar and the film also won the Academy award for Best Editing in an important piece of work that also contains one of Tom Cruise's most stellar performances. Alas, Universal seriously dropped the ball by using a re-hashed non-anamorphic transfer on this third release of the film on DVD. Only a commentary track from Oliver Stone makes this a noteworthy re-release.
Ron Kovic (Tom Cruise) grows up a fairly normal boy of the '50s and '60s in a small town in New York, and had the patriotic fervor of one who saw his father fight in World War II and others fight before him. When high school is over he can't wait to join the Marines and "make history." His life is nearly cut short when he is shot and paralyzed from the mid-chest down in Vietnam. A harrowing look at his months in a Veteran's Hospital is followed by the terrible reception the veterans received upon their return. From flag waver who believed "America-Love it or Leave It" to protester for veterans rights and against Vietnam the film tells this very personal story.
I can heap superlatives attempting to describe the merits of this film. Stone's direction and the more languid editing than his later films reach the level of genius. Both Oscars are well deserved. Oliver Stone is never one to stick to convention when it comes to filmmaking, and his use of light and color is also amazing. The harsh, unrepentant look underscores the horrors of war and the aftermath for those who survived.
The visceral, powerful imagery is supported by an incredibly emotional and dramatic story. Knowing these events took place largely as happened in the real life of Ron Kovic makes the story even more impressive. Tom Cruise sublimates himself into the role of Ron Kovic, warts and all. The picture isn't pretty, from the point of his entry to Vietnam on. Only after many years can he overcome the many problems that the war has wrought upon him physically and mentally. An inspired performance by Willem Dafoe in a supporting role is well worth noting as well.
There is a deep message underlying the story of Kovic's life. War is not a cause for celebration or national pride. It is at best a necessary evil and at worst a waste of the lives of a generation. This was perhaps never more true than the war in Vietnam. It also underscores the importance of treating our veterans properly. Fortunately the nation has learned the lessons of Vietnam in their respect for those who had to fight, though the Veterans Administration still has more to do. Those who fought in that war were treated terribly both by the people and the government on their return. Some of the most horrific moments in the film are actually in the hospital rather than the war itself, though those were graphically terrible as well. We owe it to our veterans and ourselves to do better.
This third release of the film on DVD is mostly changed by the addition of a commentary track from director and co-writer Oliver Stone. The track was very detailed from the technical standpoint and went into the story and the places where real life had to be changed or condensed. Certainly that track is worth hearing and worth doing a new release to get on the disc. In addition, cast and crew biographies and filmographies and production notes are included.
The film was released first on laserdisc and then on DVD in the early days of the format. While the transfer on the DVD showed improvement over the awful picture on the laserdisc, it was not first rate even then. Later a DTS version came out with the same sub-par transfer. Now two years later comes the re-release with a commentary track and we still get the same re-hashed non-anamorphic transfer. This was a very poor choice considering the acclaim this film has received. The transfer suffers from an abundance of grain and numerous artifacts, including shimmer, ringing, halo effects, and moire patterns. Edge enhancement makes for an artificial level of sharpness which was only adequate without it and obscures the finer details. I'm extremely disappointed with the picture quality and the decision to try to pass this off for the third DVD release in a row.
Fortunately the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack fares better. The sound is clear and the surrounds work well enough, especially during the battle scenes and with the evocative musical score from John Williams. I should point out that this score is one of William's best, with sentimental, sadly emotive, and even glorious moments. Dialogue is clear and sound effects given decent directionality. The mix was originally done in Dolby Surround and there is little to show improvement with the current soundtrack, since it stays mostly front loaded and the soundfield doesn't work as well in the spaces between front and rear. This is to say the soundfield is more wide than deep. The soundtrack is never really part of the problem though with the picture being the main distraction.
I've heaped a lot of praise on the film, but that doesn't mean I love it. As a member of that generation who fought in Vietnam this is a personally painful and difficult film to watch. I dare say the film is an important one but not one I looked forward to seeing again. No one who lived through that war could watch this film without facing some potentially dangerous memories. Few will come away from this film unscathed, though I know that is exactly the point.
I highly recommend this disc for a rental for the sake of the Oliver Stone commentary track and especially for those who have not seen the film before. It is one of those films that I believe should be seen. Considering the poor transfer and the difficulty with repeated viewings of the film I wouldn't recommend purchase.
Oliver Stone is commended for his fine work on a film that shows the aftermath of the Vietnam War from the standpoint of one of its casualties. Tom Cruise is likewise commended for one of the most powerful performances of his career. Universal is convicted of negligence for not rectifying a poor non-anamorphic transfer after having had two re-releases to get it done right. This one falls under the three strike rule.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
Running Time: 144 Minutes
Release Year: 1989
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Commentary Track
* Cast and Crew Info
* Production Notes