Universal // 1989 // 145 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Ryan Keefer (Retired) // July 3rd, 2007
"I had a mother; I had a father, things -- things that made sense. Do you remember things that made sense? Things you could count on? Before we all got so lost? What are we gonna do, Charlie? What am I gonna do?"
Oliver Stone's Asian "trilogy" of films came to a head when the second film Born on the Fourth of July was released in 1989. Featuring effective storytelling by Stone and a magnificent performance from Tom Cruise, the film received a fair deal of critical acclaim, even an Oscar for Stone, his second in four years. So does the film look even more impressive in high definition?
Based on the autobiography of Ron Kovic and adapted by Stone, Cruise plays Kovic, a star athlete in Massapequa, Long Island growing up in the '50s and '60s. Kovic's value system is based around family and country, and when America gets into an armed conflict with an emerging Southeast Asian country named Vietnam, Kovic enlists and goes over to fight, and during a firefight is shot and paralyzed from the waist down. He spends time in a hospital before returning home, and finds that the sleepy New York suburb he left isn't the same as it was, and neither is he. He finds himself being more and more disenchanted by the war and the actions that America has taken surrounding it, and becomes a vocal opponent to the conflict. The story covers the approximate two-decade period from the '50s leading up to the Democratic National Convention in 1976, where Kovic was a speaker.
"Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it."
I'm not entirely sure where it is in this country where the wheels fell off the tracks, but for every person who is against our current conflict to be labeled "against the War on Terror," there's another person who supports our troops and is labeled a "warmonger," just as everyone who owns a gun and wants to make sure that his/her house isn't broken into is called a "gun nut." I own a gun and am not a gun nut, and I support our troops and am not a warmonger. I firmly believe the common thread in both of those positions is that both as a gun owner and former soldier, the ultimate purpose of both is to hopefully have to never use neither as long as we live. I've not done a lot of time "in country," but I've kept in touch with and made friends of those who have, and they'll readily agree that war is an unnatural act or feeling, a GI or Marine probably hates going to Baghdad, but if it means making sure that what happens there doesn't happen here, even in the slightest, so be it. So semper fi, keep your head down and on a swivel, and I'll try and send as many "f books" as I can without them getting intercepted.
And aside from the obvious parallel of armed conflict, Born on the Fourth of July foretells of the same neglect and downright criminal behavior that our government and its citizens exhibit when dealing with or treating those that go to fight for their country, defending the rights of those unable or unwilling to serve. The VA conditions that were labeled as "exaggerated" nearly two decades ago are a hot button topic for today's wounded, and those who have been in conflict and speak out against the war are called traitors by "pro-war" supporters. Those who are "anti-war" belittle or badger those who are sent into battle, exhibiting no strength of choice that they themselves might not show when given the chance. Those who have fought and were fortunate to come back to America, be it from Vietnam or Iraq, have earned the right to have their opinions heard, and whether you disagree with them or not, their voices should resonate longer than the words of any "warmonger" or "peacenik hippie." Plato might have said that "only the dead have seen the end of war," but many of those still around have been irrevocably changed by those experiences. As a man, Ron Kovic might have been lost at one point in his life, but he found himself and a cause for his brothers in arms to rally around. One would hope that every veteran doesn't have to fall before picking themselves up again.
Emotional overtures aside, as for the film, Cruise's performance is the most underrated of his career and one of the most ignored yet superb acting pieces in the last two decades. He plays Kovic during this period, goes into Vietnam as a youthful energetic buck and comes out against what's happening, and hoping to make sure it doesn't happen to other people. But he also comes back supremely conflicted. Everything that he knew as a child was not only non-existent, but ridiculed and mocked. He had to develop his own belief and moral structure, and for a twenty-something without the use of your legs, it must be a Herculean effort. The supporting performances are also winners for the most part, as Kyra Sedgwick (Singles) appears in her first feature as Ron's childhood friend Donna and is a stunner, including one scene where she sees Ron again for the first time after he's come back from Vietnam.
The 2.35:1 1080p transfer using the VC-1 codec looks quite good. The film transfers from its early rustic origins has a more modern feel which it sports rather well, with a consistent but not distracting layer of film grain throughout the film. The Dolby Digital-Plus soundtrack cuts the mustard in the sense that John Williams' score is really crisp, however in some of the battle scenes things come across rather bland, without a lot of low end activity, despite the surround speaker use. You're likely to see and hear better presentations than this.
The extras are the same as the existing version, of which there aren't many. Stone contributes a commentary which provides a lot of insight into the process, and the story had been floating around for a decade prior to filming, and lists the names that have been attached. He is full of information on the film's production and technical trivia (like discussing the logistics of switching to 2.35:1 anamorphic from 1.85:1) and provides a great deal of historical context to the events in Kovic's life. And of course, the topics larger than the film and its subject are broached upon too, such as the value of service to one's country, be it in fatigues or otherwise. Vietnam is briefly mentioned. Just kidding, it gets a lot of time on Stone's watch. His commentaries are usually engrossing and well-detailed, and this is no different. An NBC story on the making of the film is the only other extra on the disc.
I'd love, love, love to see an edition of this disc that had enough extras on it to make it worthy of the film that bears his imprint. If this film does get revisited on disc anytime soon, something that included some more participation by Kovic and Cruise would be welcome, bordering on integral.
Stone's direction is effective without being excessive, and the performances are all excellent. Born of the Fourth of July should be required viewing, but I wouldn't add it to your library until it's given the proper special edition treatment it deserves (Criterion anyone?).
The court finds for Stone and Kovic and hopes that others can give the respect, attention and admiration for the returning veterans of today's war that yesterday's veterans never quite fully received.
Review content copyright © 2007 Ryan Keefer; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (French)
Running Time: 145 Minutes
Release Year: 1989
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Commentary Oliver Stone
* NBC News Archives: Backstory -- Born On The Fourth Of July
* Original Verdict Review