Universal // 1989 // 145 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // July 9th, 2012
A story of innocence lost and courage found.
"I want to go to Vietnam. I'll die there if I have to."
Ever since childhood, Ron Kovic (Tom Cruise, Rain Man) wanted nothing more than to serve his country. As such, when a recruiting officer (Tom Berenger, Inception) invites him to join the Marines, he jumps at the invitation. Unfortunately, he joins the military during the early 1960s and is promptly shipped off to Vietnam. The action there grows increasingly hellish as the years pass, and on one fateful day Ron is taken down on the battlefield. He survives the incident, but is paralyzed from the mid-chest down. As Ron attempts to come to terms with life in a wheelchair, he begins questioning his formerly unwavering devotion to the U.S. Government's efforts in Vietnam.
During much of the 1980s, director Oliver Stone devoted himself to the heavy task of making Big Statements about a variety of controversial issues. In films like Platoon, Salvador and Wall Street, Stone delivered feature-length sermons on weighty subjects, and his uncompromising passion for his own point-of-view earned him a reputation as something of a rabble-rouser. His sledgehammer-like style of direction has led to some particularly unfortunate misfires over the years, but when he connects with his subject matter he is capable of delivering a genuinely powerful experience. Born on the Fourth of July is one of Stone's preachiest films, but also one of his most potent.
Stone had already offered a powerful commentary on the Vietnam war in Platoon just three years earlier, but in Born on the Fourth of July he delivers a tale that is angrier and more intimate. Several filmmakers had been attempting to adapt Ron Kovic's story before Stone was able to secure the rights to the material (Jane Fonda claimed that Kovic's life was the inspiration for Coming Home), but Stone was thoughtful enough to realize that the story was bigger than simply the turbulent-yet-inspirational saga of a single man. Through Kovic's eyes, Stone gives us a look at a seismic cultural shift and fully immerses us in the disorienting outrage of the era.
When Ron joined the Marines, he fully expected to be thrown into an experience comparable to what his father (Raymond J. Barry, Justified) had gone through during WWII: a dangerous yet undeniably heroic mission with clear-cut heroes, villains and moral purpose. What he actually finds in Vietnam startles him, but that's nothing compared to his surprise when he discovers that the returning veterans are being treated with derision and spite. From here, Stone and Cruise masterfully capture the confused rage burning within Kovic's mind. Over the course of several years, Kovic finds himself shouting the platitudes of both sides (from "America: love it or leave it!" to "1-2-3-4, we don't want your #$%&@*! war!"), but it's a long time before he's able to keep his demons at bay and speak with clear-eyed purpose and conviction about his feelings. Kovic's struggle to come to terms with his feelings is made all the more potent by the fact that Stone directs as much rage at certain thoughtless war protestors as he does at the U.S. Government. It's a refreshingly complicated reaction to a period in history that is now too often viewed in simplistic (if war = bad, then war protestors = good) terms.
There's no doubt that Born on the Fourth of July is one of Stone's most visceral films, which is saying something when you take a glance at the man's resume. Above all, it wants the audience to feel the confusion and despair which so many were attempting to cope with during the era. The film's mood veers quickly between anger, bewilderment and sadness, and Stone reflects the fast-changing and conflicting emotions with almost alarmingly vivid cinematography (featuring assorted shades of red, white and blue) and a John Williams score which simultaneously suggests anguish, tenderness and patriotism. Stone's films often seem to be filled with righteous conviction, but in this case it's more of a pained empathy. It's hard to imagine another director delivering an experience quite so vivid and cathartic as this one.
Tom Cruise was miscast and misused on numerous occasions during the early stages of his movie stardom, but (awkward-looking hairpieces aside) Born on the Fourth of July is a sublime marriage of actor and role. Cruise's brash charm works well for the film's early sequences, and his trademark intensity and almost otherworldly drive contrast heartbreakingly with his muddled mental state during some of the later sequences in the film. Cruise almost always gives 110 percent to each role he's handed (even when he ought to dial back a bit), and this is a film that benefits from that quality immensely. It's not a self-consciously showy "give me an Oscar" performance; it's a surprisingly human performance that beautifully turns a character who might have simply been a memorable prop into a three-dimensional individual.
Stone litters his supporting cast with impressive actors, but most of them are only given a few scenes (if that much) to make an impression. Fortunately, most of the actors seem capable of delivering fully-realized sketches within their limited screen time. Willem Dafoe (Spider-Man) in particular excels as the troubled veteran who takes Kovic under his wing in Mexico, and memorable turns from Kyra Sedgwick (The Closer), Raymond J. Berry, Tom Berenger, Frank Whaley (Pulp Fiction), Tony Frank (Tender Mercies) and Caroline Kava (Snow Falling on Cedars) are also worth noting. Elsewhere, you'll find dozens of recognizable faces popping up in the background, though the assorted players are generally selfless enough that they don't distract from the central narrative.
Born on the Fourth of July (Blu-ray) has received a stellar 1080p/2.35:1 transfer that does a nice job of preserving Stone's dynamic imagery. There's a good deal of grain present during some sequences, but that's vastly preferable to any excessive DNR tampering (there are faint traces of it being employed from time to time). Additionally, some scenes look a little soft, but for the most part detail is impressive. Depth is solid throughout, and black levels are mostly satisfactory (there's a bit of crush in a couple of scenes). The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track starts off on an uneven note, with Tom Cruise's opening narration sounding vastly softer than the sweeping John Williams cue that kicks in afterwards, but things start to level out shortly after. Generally, dialogue is clean and clear, the sound mix is well-distributed and the more intense audio sequences pack an impressive punch. Still, it's the rich, thick Williams score that leaves the strongest impression. Supplements include a commentary with Stone, a 22-minute "NBC News Archive" piece on the making of the film and two standard-issue Universal featurettes ("100 Years of Academy Award Winners" and the oddly-titled "100 Years of Universal in the '80s"). You also get (deep breath) a DVD Copy, a digital copy, My Scenes, Pocket Blu and BD-Live, in case anyone cares.
Born on the Fourth of July represents Oliver Stone at the top of his game. It remains a moving, superbly-crafted portrait of both Ron Kovic's life and a particularly painful chapter in American history.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (French)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 145 Minutes
Release Year: 1989
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* My Scenes
* Pocket Blu
* DVD Copy
* Digital Copy