Oscar Vault Monday – Born On The Fourth of July, 1989 (dir. Oliver Stone)
I think I first saw this film when I was in High School. If I remember correctly, I rented it because I was going through a Willem Dafoe phase (yes, really). My mother watched it with me because she had really enjoyed the film when it first came out. Then she told me about how she’d seen the real Ron Kovic speak at an event once and she thought Cruise had really captured his spirit. There’s a lot of themes in this movie; because it is directed by Oliver Stone, it isn’t particularly subtle with its point of view. But, from what I gather, neither was Ron Kovic. The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards, winning two: Best Sound, Best Cinematography, Best Original Score, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film Editing (Won), Best Actor, Best Director (won), Best Picture. The other films nominated for Best Picture that year were Dead Poets Society, Field of Dreams, My Left Foot and winner Driving Miss Daisy.
This is definitely not an easy film to watch and was made three years after Stone’s Best Picture winning Platoon. This time, instead of focusing on the horrors of war on the battlefront, Stone tells the (mostly true) story of a boy, Ron Kovic (who really was born on the 4th of July, 1946), who volunteers to go fight in Vietnam. While there the worst of things happens – he accidentally kills someone in his own platoon and is told by his XO (Tom Berenger), to forget the incident. Later Kovic is paralyzed and the film follows him to a VA hospital and explores his attempt to return to “normal” life and how he eventually becomes an anti-war movement leader. Stone won Best Director for his work on this film (his second, after Platoon), and like I said earlier his direction is not even in the vicinity of subtle; but that’s what makes him who he is as a director.
I must say I really love the scene right before Kovic (Tom Cruise) crashes the prom to dance with the then-love of his life Donna (Kyra Sedgwick). It is just so insanely romantic and beautifully staged. It helps to set up Kovic as an innocent, a teenager capable of grand, sweeping gestures. It makes his fall, and eventual journey back all the more powerful.
Sedgwick is wonderfully luminous as the teenage Donna, all full of wonder and hope for the future. When Kovic returns from the war, a shell of who he once was, he visits Donna at her college where she has become a much stronger woman and part of the anti-war movement. There’s a pretty shattering scene set during a vigil for the victims of the Kent State shootings. This film manages to pack a lot of 70s American history into two hours. This was such a turbulent time in America, especially for people in their 20s. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to be a college student during all of this. I think the character of Donna is supposed to be just a year or two older than my mother, so I have some idea based on the stories she’s told me.
I think it was a wise decision on Stone’s part to keep the film’s time in Vietnam limited because the war is just a catalyst for Kovic’s personal journey. If you want Stone’s take on the battlefront, watch Platoon. Robert Richardson’s cinematography during the Vietnam sequence is breathtaking.
After he returns home, but before Kovic sees Donna at her college, he spends the 4th of July with an old high school friend Timmy Burns (Frank Whaley), who is also a wounded veteran; the two swap war stories. Whaley gives one of my favorite performances in the film because it feels so real and frank and is just utterly heartbreaking.
After his visit with Donna, Kovic goes to Mexico. There he has his first ever sexual experience, with a prostitute. Because he is emotionally stunted by his previous life experiences, he thinks he is in love with her, but eventually realizes the difference between love and lust. While in Mexico he meets Charlie (Willem Dafoe), both of whom (if I remember correctly) dabble in drug use to help them deal with their post-traumatic stress. The two eventually go on a bit of a disastrous road trip. Dafoe is devastating in this role.
The film ends with Kovic seeking out the parents of the boy he killed; a hard scene to watch, but one that ultimately leads Kovic to redemption. We then see some of the work Kovic did with the anti-war movement (specifically, Vietnam Veterans Against the War), including speaking at the 1972 Republican National Convention in Miami and the 1976 Democratic National Convention, shortly after the publication of his autobiography, Born on the Fourth of July. Tom Cruise was nominated for Best Actor for his performance in this film and I still think this is one of his greatest performances. It’s a shame he spent most of his career trying to be a matinée idol, because once upon a time he had real promise of being a great actor. Regardless, no matter how you feel about Cruise, or Stone for that matter, Born On The Fourth of July is definitely worth your time.
Posted on July 4, 2011, in Oscar Vault Monday and tagged 1989, Born On The Fourth of July, Frank Whaley, Kyra Sedgwick, Oliver Stone, Robert Richardson, Tom Berenger, Tom Cruise, Willem Dafoe. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.