Reconsidering 'Born on the Fourth of July' (1989)
Steve Leftridge revisits Stone’s second Vietnam themed film
As the second in Oliver Stone’s trilogy of Vietnam films, Born on the Fourth of July is the story of what happens when those soldiers from Platoon come back home to communities that have, in large part, remained oblivious to the war. The film tells the story of Ron Kovic (played by Tom Cruise), an idealistic Texas kid who joined the Marines in order to fight the Communists, and whose life was shattered when a bullet passed through his spine, paralyzing him. Stone crafts a film that updates The Best Years of Our Lives for a new generation who, in 1989, were following the twenty-year rule and reexamining the cultural and political ramifications of the 1960s.
The story follows Kovic’s return home as a paraplegic to find a community, including his family, who are at turns proud of and ashamed of him. The veteran becomes increasingly broken, feeling victimized by the dirty trick perpetuated by a country that has grown ignorant of the truths of the war and unsympathetic to those who gave their bodies for it. “There’s no God and there’s no country,” Kovic tells his mother at the depth of his despair, and the film follows Kovic’s harrowing efforts to make sense of his life, to find companionship, and, eventually, to fight back against a country that he feels betrayed him.
Cruise’s portrayal of Kovic is itself a relevation. Although Stone had scored big with Platoon, it was Cruise’s influence that helped align financing for Born on the Fourth of July. Stone had started work on adapting Kovic’s memoir a decade before—with Al Pacino attached to play Kovic—but it took Cruise to finally get the film off the ground. Much of Cruise’s industry pull, ironically, came from his performance in 1986’s Top Gun, but that film’s hawkish jingoism was wholly at odds with the story told in Born on the Fourth of July. Then again, nothing could quite compare audiences for Cruise’s performance as both a naïve 1950s high school virgin and a boozed-out, wheelchair-bound, long-haired hippie. Cruise himself spent weeks confined to a wheelchair to prepare, and his commitment to the often unpleasant verisimilitude of his character is thorough and complete. As good as Cruise has sometimes been, he’s never matched this gutsy, riveting performance.
Born on the Fourth of the July is a film of contrasts and parallelism. The opening sequence of young boys playing war games in the woods, with Little Ronnie getting “killed” by soldiers is a preview of things to come. Likewise, Ron’s high school wrestling match, featuring Stone’s crafty top-shot, is the first in a series of devastating losses that takes increasing tolls on his psyche. And the ‘50s-era Fourth of July parade in Massapequa, NY, along with slo-mo baseball triumphs and first-kiss sentimentalism—what Stone calls “good corn”—are the calm before the storm, a fantasy of twirlers, fireworks, and Yankees hats taken in by anamorphic camera shots and John Williams’ sweeping score. But amid such seemingly idealistic nostalgia, there are harbingers of reality and of Ron’s destiny—amid the marching bands and clowns are armless and paraplegic combat veterans, including a cameo by Kovic himself, flinching at the pops of firecrackers.
These idyllic pre-war images—the prom, Mickey Mantle, “Moon River”, Jesus—come back to haunt Ron later in the film when he hits rock bottom, abandoned on the side of a desolate road somewhere in Mexico, wrestling with Charlie, a fellow wheelchair-bound vet (a maniacal Willem Dafoe, a Platoon alum). Ron leans into Charlie and laments, “I had a mother. I had a father—things that made sense. Remember things that made sense? Before we all got lost?”
What has destroyed Kovic’s world—his puritanical Catholic upbringing and his virginal naivete—is the psychological fallout of the war as much as his shattered spine, and Stone’s footage of Vietnam in Born, from the innocence of Massapequa, is a dissolve into the abyss, an equally chilling but different Vietnam from Stone’s imagery in Platoon. If Platoon was set in the green hell of the jungle, Born is the dusty, yellow wasteland, a place where Ron discovers a hooch full of dead children and, in the chaos and confusion, shoots and kills one of his own men. Ron is disgusted by his own actions, intensified by the scrupulosity of his Catholic upbringing, and although he attempts a type of confession, he’s rebuffed by his superior officer and ends up paying for his crime himself. After Ron is hit, we hear the sounds of childhood commingled with the blood gurgling in Ron’s throat. It’s a contrast at the very heart of the film.
Between the moment Ron is shot and his fight with Charlie in Mexico, Born presents a devastating story of heartbreak and eventual awakening, and there isn’t a wasted shot in the film. There’s Ron, bathed in white light, dreaming that he’s standing up and running, which cuts cruelly to an image of Ron strapped upside-down staring at his own vomit in a filthy veterans hospital, a place of horrors—rats, festering ulcers, screaming, racial strife, suicides—scenes as shocking as those from the war.
Then there’s the second Independence Day parade back in Massapequa, this one full of tumult and hostility and harsh light, where Ron can feel himself lying to the crowd during his speech about the war and finds himself unable to continue, as helicopter flashbacks invade his head. All around him are people who stayed behind to make money: his high school buddy has opened a successful burger joint (a hole in the middle of the burger—that’s smart capitalism). Ron is an outcast in his home, first arguing with his peacenik younger brother (“Love it or leave it, Tommy!”), then coming home drunk and laying his wounds bare before his horrified mother. Most heartbreaking of all is his tender relationship with his father, to whom he asks, “Who’s ever going to love me, Dad?”
The scenes from Mexico are hypnotic, everything shot from low angles from Ron’s perspective, as is much of the post-war film. It’s a place where Ron looks into the eyes of Charlie, Defoe’s character, and sees a scary version of himself in a few years, as a guy who’s grown desperate enough to burn out hard and fast with liquor, drugs, and whorehouses (“If you don’t have it in the hips, you’d better have it in the lips”). Ron descends deep into this world—Stone channels Fellini in a hallucinogenic montage—yet Ron is still an adolescent at heart, bringing gifts to prostitutes who only make him realize what he’s missed in life.
The film ends with Kovic returning home, going public, confessing to the family of the boy he killed, and joining (later leading) the war protesters. In depicting the Republic National Convention of 1972, Stone creates another war scene of chaos, screaming, and gas attacks interspersed with shots of Nixon speaking, a preview of Stone’s future work (as was the clip of JFK’s speech earlier in the film). Finally, the film ends at the 1976 Democratic National Convention as Kovic prepares to address the crowd, a fulfillment of his mother’s earlier prophecy. Stone, with a sentimental ending, outs himself as a cine-romantic, finishing with the kind of “good corn” with which he opened the film. However, between those bookends, Stone has never been better at presenting the unflinching realities of a tragically representative American story.