Late to the Party: Born on the Fourth of July (1989)

Hello everybody, and welcome to another edition of Late to the Party, a column where the users and readers of this site can dedicate some time to a piece of pop culture that’s passed them by until now! Today is a holiday in our country, the anniversary of our independence. But with things in this place looking bleaker than ever, many people are certainly not in the mood to spend the day singing the praises of America. So I thought it would be an interesting opportunity to take this day and this column to discuss a July 4th film that actually criticizes this nation, in addition to being arguably much more interesting to watch in modern times than it was back then. Today we’ll be discussing the 1989 film Born on the Fourth of July.

Based on the true story of Ron Kovic, the film tells how Kovic transformed to an All-American young soldier with the world ahead of him to an outspoken anti-war activist after being paralyzed from the waist down while fighting in Vietnam. While Kovic’s story is a fascinating and admirable one, the overall successes of the film come mainly from the brains of two men: Tom Cruise and Oliver Stone. To watch this film is to compare how the public image and reputation of these men have changed over the years since its release. While I have always been a huge fan of Cruise’s career, Stone has always confounded me somewhat. While I admire how he is one of the most outspokenly left filmmakers in American history, many of his movies and public statements have left me cold and frustrated. He’s one of the most controversial figures in American film, and every good thing you could say about him and his movies can most likely be canceled out by a criticism.

Thankfully, almost all of the usual concerns and criticisms I have with Stone are absent from this film, which I easily consider not only his finest work but one of the truly great anti-war masterpieces. This is not only perhaps his most intelligent and brutally emotional film, but his best made as well. From the very first shots, where we see gorgeous rays of natural light peek through the treetops, the films technical appeal is easy to see. The lighting, editing, and cinematography is crafted with such a steady hand, thanks to the genius of legendary cinematographer Robert Richardson. The swooping long takes and classical restraint that Stone and Richardson show here is much preferable to the nonstop frenzied editing of Stones later films such as JFK, Natural Born Killers and Any Given Sunday. Compared to Stones previous Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July is an anti-war film that’s more heavy on the “anti”. Stone and Richardson embrace their chaotic side on the only two battle scenes of the film, using garish color filters and frantically panning the camera back and forth, constantly looking for a way out. It’s only inevitable that things will soon turn disastrous, and Kovic sees firsthand how civilians and soldiers alike suffer horrific fates. While the battle scenes surely rank among the most memorably disorienting in film, it is the return of the shattered Kovic back home, and his subsequent evolution, that is the main focus of the film.

Born on the Fourth of July is still relevant and essential viewing because of the brutal honesty in which it paints America’s lust for patriotism and war, and how that passes through generations of people despite how poorly the government treats our soldiers and veterans. It cannot be overstated how vital the casting and performance of Cruise is to making this film work as well as it does. From nearly the beginning of his career, Cruise was the golden boy, the fun-loving and untouchable star who represented all this country could be – Tom Cruise was, and is, America. It’s for this reason that we love to watch him succeed – and yet for that same reason we love to watch him fail. Some of his most subversive performances (such as Eyes Wide Shut, Magnolia, and Edge of Tomorrow) have been based on the appeal of watching Cruise fail and struggle. In his biggest action movies he has begun to acknowledge the insanity of his death-defying ego and the somewhat shocking realization that even he, the eternally young man, gets older. Stone originally didn’t want to cast Cruise after (correctly) dismissing Top Gun as a “fascist movie”, but even in the 80’s he could see this strange appeal surrounding the star: “I saw this kid who has everything, and I wondered what would happen if tragedy strikes, if fortune denies him … I thought it was an interesting proposition: What would happen to Tom Cruise if something goes wrong?”

Seeing Cruise go from the template of a patriotic, good hearted American boy to the jaded, broken man cast aside by the country he once served is truly heartbreaking and sold beautifully by Cruise in arguably his best performance. Each stage of Kovic’s life, and the struggles that come with them, is illustrated differently while still feeling like they belong to the same character. Kovic’s paralysis stings even more when you see that the confidence and swagger that made him so popular and respected as a youth at home and at war will not help him become whole again. His guarantee to the doctors that he will walk again quickly fades as his physical therapy fails amidst the horrific conditions of the veterans hospital. Kovic’s agonizing recovery in the dilapidated facility is given just as much, if not more screentime than any war sequences, and in fact the hospital scenes are more disturbing. Seeing Kovic’s spirit break while trapped upside down in shit and vomit stained sheets for hours is a crucial moment, as Cruise’s mixture of confusion, anger, and pain shows that he can never go back to who he once was.

Stone weaponizes Cruise’s charm and the ideals of what a “classic patriotic” American home life should be to make the harsh reality of Kovics story sink in. The opening of the film shows Kovic’s carefree life as a child on Long Island in idealized, sentimental fashion complete with climactic slo-mo and detailed tracking shots taking in the joyous celebration of a July 4th parade. One powerful moment sees a WWII veteran in a wheelchair (played in a cameo by Kovic himself) being pushed to cheers and applause. As fireworks go off in the distance, the soldier instinctively flinches, mirroring what Kovic will do later when he himself is paraded through town as a wheelchair user. It’s one of several instances where Stone mirrors scenes for powerful dramatic effect. The climax of the film is when Ron, finally embracing his role as an anti-war activist, and his fellow protestors are attacked at the RNC. Stone shoots the attack in the same way he filmed Kovic being wounded in Vietnam. Richardson’s camera becomes more chaotic and smoke fills the air, until an immobilised Kovic is finally carried to rescue by another soldier. In the brief moments we see Kovic as a soldier in the film, he seems a natural fit, at ease with giving orders and talking to the men around him. We see this quality before he is wounded, but we never see it again until the RNC attack, where Ron is able to recover and guide his fellow protestors back towards the convention in a stirring moment.

The journey of Kovic from scared and purposeless veteran to anti-war activist is the main focus of the film, and while seeing that evolution is important I wish we could’ve spent more time at the destination. By the time Kovic finally becomes an activist there are only about 15 minutes left in the film. I would’ve liked to see how other characters, such as his parents or Kyra Sedgwick (who has less screentime than I expected) react to his activism. Both Ron and his fellow veteran friends resent the anti -Vietnam demonstrators in America, despite freely admitting how there time at war scarred and damaged them and killed their friends. A scene with Ron talking to his friend, played by the underrated Frank Whaley, is a believably sorrowful showcase of regret. Since we spend a lot of time with Ron at the lowest parts of his life (especially the scenes in Mexico) his final transformation to activist feels a bit rushed.

I have only a few other complaints with this film, mainly due to Stone’s usual lack of subtlety. Ron’s parents are underwritten, and the film never really explores how Ron feels betrayed by his parents in addition to America, especially since his father, a veteran himself, never warned him about what could happen in the war. It also leads to moments like the big argument between Ron and his parents devolving into him shouting “PENIS” while his mother cries. Having the film end with a triumphant speech from Ron at the DNC is oddly anticlimactic and naive, and I suspect that Stone would not end that film the same way if he made it today. But thankfully Stone makes up for that with skilled direction in other key scenes, like when Ron finally confronts one of his biggest demons by visiting a fellow soldiers family to make a confession. Stone shoots the scene with several split diopters and big closeups to drive the power of the film home.

Born on the Fourth of July is one of the best anti-war films ever, and one of the few honest films about America as a whole. Few other films show how we live in a culture of war and hero worship, not caring about the lives ruined or destroyed in its wake. A powerful watch and something that I’d say is essential to remember this Fourth of July.

RATING: 4 out of 5 stars