Director Oliver Stone has a knack for turning seemingly grandiose premises into small personal tales about individuals, instead of he major events surrounding them. Throughout his filmography he’s tackled such major conflicting people and events as John F. Kennedy (JFK), Richard Nixon (Nixon), the Vietnam war (Platoon), Alexander the Great (Alexander), the Bush Jr. presidency (W.), and the events of 9/11 (World Trade Center), each time succeeding in humanizing the major figures involved. To an outsider, these people and events may be too imposing to grasp, but Stone finds it imperative that we not only become familiar with the people involved, but also find their greatest weaknesses. And so it goes with Born on the Fourth of July, a biographical film about real-life Vietnam War veteran Ron Kovic’s experiences as a paralyzed ex-soldier living in a country that doesn’t seem to be as grateful for his service, as he was in giving it. To make sure that the story was as accurate (and unrestrained) as possible, Stone co-wrote the script with Kovic himself.
Kovic is played by Tom Cruise and outside of the opening credits sequence which emphasizes cinematographer Robert Richardson’s tremendous talent behind the camera, Stone leaves out most of his tendencies for directorial flourishes, and lets Cruise become the film. That is quite literally what occurs as Cruise is on screen for 99% of the screen time in a very challenging role, both physically and emotionally. At the beginning of the film after he gets injured in the field, Cruise is put through the grinder in an army infirmary where his paralysis prevents him from being able to perform basic life functions without assistance – unfortunately assistance isn’t always present. While those scenes are some of the most demanding due to the physical effects on the character, a later scene involving a confrontation with also-paralyzed veteran Charlie (Willem Dafoe) will certainly get an emotional response, as we see two people who’s lives have been thoroughly destroyed by a badly carried-out war and a country that’s turned it’s back on them.
It’s no spoiler to admit that Kovic’s story is largely anti-war and anti-patriotism (despite the film’s title). But in addition to its politics, it displays a profound moral standpoint regarding the US’s mistreatment of veterans – especially ones that are too injured to be able to get a job. Few rays of light break through the bleakness of Kovic’s post-war life and they are usually short-lived. The harsh truth is that in a largely individualistic society like the US’s, even those who most deserve our help get turned away, or worse become outcasts. It is then the movie’s unflinching pro-soldier view that really helps it drive it’s point across, it being that war is usually always senseless, and even the most patriotic believers may fall victim to it’s terrible influence on greater society. If you want some light Sunday afternoon viewing, I can’t recommend this film, but if you’re ready to explore material that challenges general perceptions of what the soldier experience is like, it is not optional. A-