Directed 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.