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From the DVD Shelf: Born on the Fourth of July (1989)

I’ve picked up a few of the Universal 100th Anniversary blu-rays that they’ve been releasing this year, highlighting films from the studio’s 100 year history.  Two that I’ve watched recently are Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July and Steven Spielberg’s Jaws.  I’ll be back soon to write about Jaws, today I want to write about Born on the Fourth of July.

After re-watching Platoon a few months ago (click here for my review), I knew I wanted to re-watch Born on the Fourth of July soon.  I’d only seen the film once, in college.  My friends and I set about to watch a number of films that we hadn’t ever seen but that we felt were important for us to see, and that brought us to Born on the Fourth of July. My recollection was really enjoying the film, though feeling that it was very intense and difficult to watch in places.  It wasn’t a film I was rushing to see again, because it was a tough story.

Well, there’s no question that Born on the Fourth of July is tough to watch in places, but I’m glad to have re-watched it.  I think it’s a terribly effective film, and one of the greatest anti-war films I’ve ever seen.

Whereas Platoon focused exclusively on the events of a soldier’s one-year tour of duty in Vietnam (based largely upon Mr. Stone’s own experiences), Born on the Fourth of July’s focus is at once more expansive and also far more focused.  Based on the true-life story of Vietnam vet Ron Kovic (and the book he wrote about his experiences), the film follows Ron from his childhood through adulthood.  We see him as a young boy and as an idealistic high school student, fervently accepting the lesson his family, teachers and community taught him about the importance of doing one’s patriotic duty to serve in the military.  We follow Ron through two tours of duty in Vietnam, where he is confronted by the horrors of war and is eventually shot and paralyzed.  We stay with Ron during his horrific experiences in a veterans hospital, his attempt to return to his home and family, his terrible depression about his paralyzation and his feelings of isolation from the world that drive him to drinking and drugs, and eventually down to a brothel in Mexico.  We see how his anger at the anti-war protesters eventually transforms him into an anti-war protester himself.

The power of Born on the Fourth of July is that it is an epic film, but also a profoundly intimate one, focused with laser-sharpness on the experiences of this one young man throughout the fifties, sixties, and into the seventies.  Ron’s story stands in for the stories of countless other young American men and boys, whose lives were irrevocably changed by the war in Vietnam.  I find the story to be profoundly gripping and tragic.

The most horrific sequence in the film — far worse than the glimpses of combat in Vietnam — are the depictions of the time Ron spent recovering from his injury in the Bronx Veterans Administration Hospital.  This is the sequence that most stuck in my mind from first seeing this film twenty years ago, and I still found it to be the most disturbing aspect of the story.  The conditions in the hospital where Ron was treated were abhorrent — the rat-infested facility was filthy, with few doctors and archaic equipment.  It’s the stuff of nightmares, and Mr. Stone’s camera does not flinch from its presentation of the terrors that awaited many injured vets.

An impossibly young-looking Tom Cruise is very compelling in the lead role, as Ron Kovic.  It’s a powerful performance, and Mr. Cruise is able to very convincingly portray Ron over twenty years of life, from an idealistic high-school kid to a combat vet to a grizzled hippie.  Some great hair and make-up effects help too, of course, but it works because Mr. Cruise is convincing as Ron no matter what point in his life at which we’re watching him.

Slightly less convincing is Kyra Sedgwick as Ron’s high school flame, Donna.  She’s a great actress and is great in the role, it’s just that she looks way too old in the scenes in which she’s supposed to be playing a high school kid.  (She was only 24 at the time, but to my eye she looked way older.)  Donna is an interesting character, and I enjoyed the subtle way in which, after the war, she more than anyone else Ron encounters is able to influence his life’s path.  I feel, though, as if the film is missing a final scene with the two characters together.  Ron meets her soon after getting released from the veterans hospital, and it’s a very powerful, gently sad sequence, but I kept waiting for one more moment between the two before the end of the film.  I’m sorry that moment never came.

Several performers from Oliver Stone’s Platoon make return appearances here.  We glimpse Tom Berenger as a Marine recruiting officer, and Willem Dafoe has a brief but very memorable role as another crippled Vietnam veteran, Charlie, who Ron meets down in Mexico.  Charlie presents a vision to Ron, and to the viewer, of where Ron is going to wind up if he’s not able to break out of his terrible depression and find some direction to his life.  After the time spent in the veterans hospital, I think the sequence set in Mexico is the next most memorable aspect of the film.  I also want to highlight Raymond J. Barry (Senator Matheson from The X-Files, and also memorable to me as Pa Cox from Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story) and Caroline Kava, who do strong work as Ron’s parents.  Also, eagle-eyed viewers will catch Mr. Stone himself and Col. Dale Dye (military advisor for Band of Brothers, as well as several of Mr. Stone’s war films) in a cameo appearance that is worth noting.

I have seen a lot of films about Vietnam, but I think Born on the Fourth of July remains one of the most important and powerful.  Mr. Stone’s film is direct and unflinching.  It might not be as artistic, say, as a film like Apocalypse Now (which I absolutely adore), but I find it to be profoundly viscerally affecting.  There’s a truth on display in this film which I have trouble looking away from.  I’m glad to have revisited it.

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