Genre: Drama and War Running Time: 2 hrs. 25 min.
Release Date: December 20th, 1989 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Oliver Stone Actors: Tom Cruise, Kyra Sedgwick, Willem Dafoe, Tom Sizemore, Lili Taylor, Raymond J. Barry, Caroline Kava, Josh Evans, Anne Bobby, Jason Gedrick, William Baldwin, William Mapother
long with his friends and siblings, young Ron Kovic plays in the woods, pretending to be soldiers hunting for the enemy. It’s 1956 in Long Island, and these children expectedly glamorize combat, having the time of their lives, chasing one another while mock gunning down the opposition. But at a Fourth of July celebration in which maimed and disfigured troops accompany parade floats, little Ron glimpses – perhaps for the first time, but without specific recognition – the horrific consequences of war. Ultimately, he’s more distracted by his youthful sweetheart, who coaxes him to a fireworks show that night to sneak a few kisses.
“As long as you do your best, that’s what matters to God.” Years later, in Massapequa High School, Ron Kovic (Tom Cruise) trains relentlessly for a wrestling championship. But it’s not to be; when he loses, his interests soon shift elsewhere. When Gunnery Sergeant Hayes (Tom Berenger) leads a presentation to recruit for the Marine Corps, Ron is inspired. Buying into the valor, he decides right away to join up. After all, it can’t be more meaningless than the menial labor he currently does at his dad’s grocery store. “This is our chance to do something – to be part of history.”
Naive and unworldly, Ron believes that fighting for his country will be the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. But, like in “The Deer Hunter,” carefree adolescence, including attending prom with his girlfriend (Kyra Sedgwick as Donna), is abruptly interrupted by a cut to the intensities of war. Quite suddenly, it’s 1967 in Vietnam. The hell of boot camp in South Carolina is completely skipped over, replaced instead by the hell of a beach incident, in which Kovic participates in the slaughter of innocent villagers – and then the accidental killing of a fellow soldier, fleeing from the chaos of an ambush.
Writer/director Oliver Stone, no stranger to antiwar epics, works with the real Ron Kovic to adapt the sergeant’s autobiography, digging into the ugliness, the confusion, and the despair of Vietnam. Here, there’s no heroism, daredevilry, or sense of courageous adventure; armed conflict is scary, bloody, and awash with catastrophic unpreparedness. Like “Platoon” before it, “Born on the Fourth of July” highlights all the gruesome realities, the crushing hopelessness, the thanklessness, and the futilities, though here it’s after a return to the States; for Ron, life after the war (beginning at the Bronx Veterans Hospital in 1968) is just as graphic and disturbing and depressing. In its shocking, uncomfortable, brutal way, this is a powerfully unglamorous – but eye-opening and important – depiction of the American cost of involvement.
“I just want to be treated like a human being!” Some sequences are straight out of a horror film, though John Williams’ score (mixed with hits of the era) attempts to bring a certain serenity to the continuous abjection. Covering far more than battlefield tragedies, “Born on the Fourth of July” proceeds to chronicle the disparate attitudes back home, where ongoing support wanes and Kovic’s “war hero” status is dismissed or even despised. Seen through the eyes of Ron’s highly decorated yet physically and psychologically wounded warrior, desperation is never far away; in particular, the veterans find it virtually impossible to reassimilate back into normal life, struggling to communicate with those who will never understand the harrowing situations they experienced. “I don’t feel like me anymore.”
With its considerable running time, there are also opportunities to examine the reevaluation of Ron’s decisions, as well as to delve into his regret and guilt. Comparably dour is his eventual reunion with Donna, whose views have changed over the years, matching those of the public’s shifting perspective on Vietnam (along with, eventually, his own opinions). And this leads to notes on Kovic’s manhood and the ways in which he can and cannot function as he wishes to. “Who’s ever gonna love me?”
As these characters are scrutinized, so too are various historical events, ranging from the civil rights movement to the Kent State shootings to presidential campaigns. As they move past such landmarks, merely existing takes a toll; finding meaning and a reason to go on living become potent, emotional endeavors, made utterly exceptional with striking dialogue and increasingly more devastating interactions (it’s occasionally difficult to push beyond the oppressing melancholy), fueled by Cruise’s against-type, tour de force performance. It’s a taxing watch, but the themes are grave and timeless. “Do you remember things that made sense?”
– Mike Massie