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Posts tagged ‘Vietnam War’

Born on the Fourth of July (1989)

Born_On_The_4th_Of_JulyDirected by Oliver Stone

Happy Independence Day! I thought that there could be no better day to review Born on the Fourth of July than actually on July 4. I remember when this movie came out. I was pretty sure it was about someone whose birthday was July 4, and I thought there could be no better thing. Fireworks on your birthday! How fun is that?* What I didn’t know was that even though Ron Kovic was actually born on the Fourth of July, the movie is not about someone’s amazing birthdays year after year.

So what’s the story? All-American kid Ron Kovic decides that it’s his duty to join the Marines and fight in Vietnam to stop the spread of Communism. He is injured and sent back home to a VA hospital, where he learns that he will never walk again. As he slowly becomes disillusioned by the way the government treats the veterans, he realizes that it’s possible to love America without blindly following the leaders. Ron begins to make his anger known, eventually becoming an anti-war activist.

The Good: I’ve never thought of Tom Cruise as a serious actor. He does action movies, and he does a good job in action movies, but I would not have guessed that Cruise could pull off a role like Ron Kovic. He does a really good job of being a man with a message, not just a man with a pretty face. The rest of the cast is also good, but the true standout is Willem Dafoe. He plays Charlie, another Vietnam vet who is also paralyzed. He’s not in the movie for very long; I’d say ten minutes at the most. But what he does in those minutes is amazing. His scene with Cruise is the best in the movie, the moment that made me connect with Ron more than at any other time. Although he was not nominated for best supporting actor, Dafoe’s performance is Oscar-worthy.

I was struck by the cinematography. When I hear the word “cinematography,” I often think of sweeping panoramic views. Born on the Fourth of July does have those, but Robert Richardson, the cinematographer, also uses extreme close-ups: the character’s faces fill the whole screen. This helps to highlight the inner struggles that the characters are feeling, as their world shrinks to nothing but what’s going on inside their heads. The editors worked with these shots, interchanging the shots of the characters as they argued to show that the characters were so wrapped up in themselves or their point of view that they couldn’t see anything else.

John William’s score is beautiful. Much of the orchestration uses a solo trumpet, which is reminiscent of soldiers fighting in wars, but which also represents Ron Kovic’s lonely fight, first against his own disillusionment, and then against the United States Government.

The Bad: The soundtrack is not great. Pop songs of the era are sprinkled throughout the movie. While some of the songs used fit naturally into the movie’s action, other songs seem to be placed completely randomly. There were way too many songs used, and “American Pie” was used twice. It almost felt like someone decided that they were going to put every single one of their favorite songs from the 1970s into the movie. It was so distracting.

I will get this out of the way before I criticize the storytelling of Born on the Fourth of July: Yes, I understand that this movie is based on a true story/an autobiography, and as such, had less leeway with how the story goes. However, what really bothers me about this movie was that they tried to show Kovic’s entire life. It starts with his idyllic childhood, showing him playing war and baseball with his friends, watching television with his family, and having his first kiss. Then it jumps to his high school days, with wrestling and the prom. Then Ron is on his second tour of duty for about 15 minutes, and then in the hospital, etc. Biopics do not usually try to show an entire life. There might be a flashback to childhood, or people may discuss their past with each other, but cramming in an entire life doesn’t really work. I suppose it’s the way it is because the real Ron Kovic wrote the screenplay with Oliver Stone; he probably felt like every bit of his life was important. But because Stone and Kovic tried to shove everything in, I had a harder time connecting to this movie. The characters were there and gone in a flash. I know that people can have an impact on you in just a few minutes in real life, but it didn’t allow for any relationships to come off as meaningful. Even Kyra Sedgwick’s character, Donna, who it seems is supposed to be Ron’s girlfriend, barely interacts with him. I had a hard time feeling Ron’s trauma from the war because only one quick incident from the war was shown. I feel like Stone and Kovic should have picked more impactful moments and perhaps taken a bit of liberty with the storyline to give it more focus. The meandering way that Kovic wanders through his story works well for books, but it’s not nearly as effective in movies. I usually like it when an author does the screenplay based on his work, but I think that’s not as good an idea for an autobiography.

I hate to compare movies; it’s just not fair. However, since The Deer Hunter, Coming Home, and Born on the Fourth of July are all stories about the Vietnam War and how it affected the people caught up in it, my subconscious comparison is more understandable. Both The Deer Hunter and Coming Home worked better as movies because they didn’t try to tell the backstories of every relationship. The backstories of the relationships come out more naturally in those movies because we see what their relationships are now. In The Deer Hunter, we don’t have to be told that Michael’s group of friends have been friends forever; it’s obvious in the way they interact with each other. We don’t have to be told that the whole town is devastated by the loss of their sons; it’s evident in the reactions of the people in the town to the tragedies of war. Born on the Fourth of July doesn’t get this quite right.

The Ugly: Again, I understand that it’s a true story, but it was incredibly selfish of Kovic to go tell Wilson’s family that Kovic himself had accidentally killed Wilson. It was self-indulgent, and while it may have been cathartic for him, it just added to the pain that the Wilson family was feeling. That scene left a bad taste in my mouth.

Oscars Won: Best director; best film editing.

Other Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best actor in a leading role (Tom Cruise); best writing, screenplay based on material from another medium; best cinematography; best sound; best music, original score.

*I could have a holiday celebrated with fireworks on my birthday, too, but I live in the wrong country.

 

The Deer Hunter (1978)

the-deer-hunterThe Deer Hunter
Directed by Michael Cimino

I knew The Deer Hunter was about Vietnam; I didn’t know that it was going to hurt my heart so badly.

So what’s the story? Mike, Steve, Nick, John, Stan, and Axel are a group of regular guys. They celebrate together, drink together, hang out together, hunt together. But then Mike, Nick, and Steve sign up to go fight in Vietnam. Their decision will change everyone’s lives forever.

The Good: In order to hurt the audience so much, the screenplay and actors first had to make us care about this group of very normal friends from a small town in Pennsylvania. Steve’s wedding is the setting to showcase the personalities of this diverse group. Mike (Robert De Niro) is slightly more mature than his friends. He takes things that he cares about very seriously. Nick (Christopher Walken) cares deeply about his friends and his girlfriend, Linda (Meryl Streep). Steven (John Savage) is so in love and so excited to marry Angela (Rutanya Alda) that he is willing to ignore the opinions that his Russian mother has about his fiance. Stan (John Cazale) is a ladies man who can’t understand anyone else’s point of view. John (George Dzundza) sings in the church choir, runs his bar, and is generally content with his life. He takes it upon himself to be the general peacemaker in the group and feels bad that his bad knees prevent him from going to Vietnam with his friends. Axel (Chuck Aspegren) is a good-hearted goofball who only seems to know one phrase. This extended setup not only makes us care, but it makes it hurt so much more when Mike, Steve, and Nick change so much, which the actors portray so heart-breakingly well. There is more that I want to say about the acting and the screenplay, but I’m trying so hard not to spoil anything for anyone. I will say this: some of the changes that people go through are more subtle than others; Christopher Walken does a ridiculously incredible job as Nick; I was glad that The Deer Hunter only showed some of the Vietnam War, because then you were able to feel the atrocities of war without being overwhelmed by them; and if you watch closely, the story mirrors itself, allowing the viewers to see people’s different reactions to the same or similar events. (If you’ve seen it and want to discuss it with me in the comments, be sure to label it if you put in spoilers.)

The music is beautiful and unobtrusive. The soundtrack is more classical than other soundtracks from 1978; no wailing saxophones here. The use of classical and popular music is managed very well. The chosen songs fit the moment they are in exactly. Stanley Meyers’s original theme, “Cavatina (Theme from The Deer Hunter)”, is fabulous, played quietly by guitarist John Williams (no, not THAT John Williams). It is iconic, one of those pieces that will always be associated with this movie. When I write these reviews, I usually like to listen to the soundtrack of the film I’m reviewing, but listening to “Cavatina” breaks my heart all over again, so I had to listen to other instrumental music so that I wasn’t too sad to write.

The editing was brutally disorienting at times. One moment the gang is all happy at home, and the next, Mike is fighting for his life in Vietnam. These cuts happen throughout the movie, and they can be disconcerting because we have no idea how we got there or what happened between the scenes. But life feels that way sometimes when we suddenly look around and realize where we are in life and then wonder how we got there. It’s also how we tell stories to people. No one ever says, “The ground starting shaking, and so I got in my car and drove down Main and then I turned right onto Elm and left onto High Street, went straight for two miles, and then I saw a monster rising out of the ground!” We leave out things that are not pertinent to the story. That’s why this editing works for this movie; it’s a story about everyday people, and the editing reflects that.

The Bad: Mike was a little too mature and heroic to be believable as a person. He’s too close to perfection for my liking.

The Ugly: Scenes of war will always be ugly and brutal and sad, which is why I’m glad The Deer Hunter acknowledges that no one is unaffected by war, and why I am also glad that the filmmakers were somewhat restrained in how much actual brutality they put into this movie.

Oscars Won: Best picture; best actor in a supporting role (Christopher Walken); best director; best sound; best film editing.

Other Oscar Nominations: Best actor in a leading role (Robert De Niro); best actress in a supporting role (Meryl Streep); best writing, screenplay written directly for the screen; best cinematography.

Coming Home (1978)

cominghome1Coming Home
Directed by Hal Ashby

 1978 is kind of a black hole in my movie world. This is another best picture nominated movie that I didn’t know anything about. When I picked it up from the library and saw that it was a movie about Vietnam starring Jane Fonda, I wasn’t thrilled. I’ve never been a fan of hers. But then I reminded myself that I loved watching Jane Fonda (and the rest of the cast) in Grace and Frankie, so I tried to put my prejudices aside and just lose myself in the movie, which turned out to be easy to do.

So what’s the story? Sally’s husband, Bob, is excited to be going to Vietnam to actually start doing his part in the Vietnam War. While he’s gone, Sally starts volunteering at the nearby VA hospital, where she reconnects with Luke, whom she knew in high school. Luke was injured in the war and is now a paraplegic. He is angry about the war, so naïve Sally tries to pull him out of his bitter shell. As they both wrestle with the tragic effects of war on so many different people, they find themselves falling in love.

The Good: Against my own expectations, I found myself very impressed with Jane Fonda’s performance as Sally. Sally grows slowly over the course of the film, and Fonda was able to show Sally’s progression from the little wife to a strong, brave woman. It’s a beautiful, heartbreaking piece of acting.

John Voight was equally good as Luke. I have prejudices against him, too (the Jim Phelps I know would never, ever betray the IM force), but since the long hair and beard helped disguise his face, I was able to appreciate his acting and feel the sadness, bitterness, and anger of a man returned from war, as well as his excitement when he started to feel that his life might get better.

The supporting actors were just as good as the leads. Penelope Milford played Vi, Sally’s free-spirited friend who worked at the hospital to be near her brother Bill, who came back from Vietnam with severe PTSD. Keith Carradine, who played Bill, and Bruce Dern, who played Sally’s husband, Bob, both portray men who can’t handle what happened in Vietnam, although they deal with it in different ways. Everyone in the movie is touched by the war somehow, and they were all able to show the different facets of living with something that can destroy men’s souls.

Both the music and cinematography in Coming Home were unusual in a good way. There was no original score, only songs that were from the time of the Vietnam War. When a song wasn’t playing in the background, there was no music at all, which added to the realism of the movie and forced the viewer to focus more intently on what is happening in the scene. The cinematography had a similar effect. There were a lot of shots of people’s hands as they were talking, underscoring what they were saying. This really stood out to me in the first scene, where actual veterans are having an unscripted conversation about the war, but it happened at other times, too.

The costuming and hair styles also underscored the changes people were making. As Sally found herself, she dressed in more comfortable, practical clothes instead of the dresses, heels, and pearls favored by the other officers’ wives. She let her hair be natural instead of straightening it. But when she went to Hong Kong to see Bob, she once again assumed the dress and appearance of a proper officer’s wife. It was a nice touch.

The Bad: Once again, I am so glad that I live now. The bad things in this movie are not problems with the movie, per se, but with the times. The attitudes towards women are terrible. Yes, I realize that people with the “men know best” attitudes still exist, but they aren’t as prevalent as they were. I’m also glad that PTSD is better understood and treated than it was in the past. I know treatment isn’t perfect, but it’s come a long way since the 1970s.

The Ugly: Coming Home isn’t a perfect movie, but there’s certainly nothing “ugly” about it.

Oscars Won: Best actor in a leading role (John Voight); best actress in a leading role (Jane Fonda); best writing, screenplay written directly for the screen.

Other Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best actor in a supporting role (Bruce Dern); best actress in a supporting role (Penelope Milford); best director; best film editing.