In Oliver Stone's second take on Vietnam he focuses on the story of Ron Kovic (Tom Cruise). He is a Vietnam vet who entered the war full of patriotism and vigor, leaving with no feeling below the chest, and eventually became a radical protesting future wars. This is his story through Stone's direction.
Kyle is running solo for this week.Born on the Fourth of July is the second in Oliver Stone's series of three Vietnam films (we'll talk about Heaven & Earth in a few weeks), and it provides more context around the war and its ripple effect on American society than the intensely combat-focused Platoon. Held side-by-side with that movie, you'd think that young Ron Kovic immediately following his return home had been part of a different war. Here is a role designed in every way to take advantage of Tom Cruise's manic, eye-bulging energy as an actor, which is harnessed in the early scenes to depict a young man who clings desperately to the idea and image of a faultless, wholesome America even as it's dismantled in front of his very eyes.
The first portion of the film is the strongest for this reason. In watching Kovic's slow, losing battle with his own optimism, Stone captures the deeper cultural effects of Vietnam: the disillusionment and loss of trust and hope that it helped usher in so strongly. Maybe each decade or generation is characterized by a shared illusion—certainly for the 50s we have unbridled, white-bread Americana and the nuclear family, and the 60s a vaguely defined revolutionary optimism based on broad ideals and dirty communal gatherings. The film starts off with an effective representation of the former. And to be clear, not of the real time period, but of the sentimental story-book version—the 1950s that consisted of parades with sports and war heroes, sporting events that the whole town attended with genuine investment, and young men who wanted to join the Marines because it was honorable and the “right thing to do for your country.”
We see all of this in a highly stylized fashion, and it's impossible not to recognize it as a carefully maintained, engineered illusion—that Kovic is so eager to go to Vietnam because he believes he is being a “good American” is all the more painful because the world we are shown in these opening scenes is no more real than an elaborate stage play. This also creates a crucial effect during the few scenes that take place in the war—a friendly fire incident and an accidental massacre of a civilian village—and in the intense sequence following Kovic's discharge to a military hospital to recover from a paralyzing gunshot wound.By showing us the impossible world that Kovic thought he was going off to preserve through his own eyes in the first part of the movie, Stone creates a harsh contrast with the reality he faces in and immediately after the war. The military hospital is a dark, depressing place devoid of hope, and the scenes are some of the most painful Stone has filmed not just because of this darkness, but because of how fervently Kovic fights against it. He argues with a nurse about the value of the war, he angrily yells “America, love it or leave it” (a mantra he clings to desperately early on) at Vietnam protestors on the news—this is a man who refuses to believe that he lost the use of half his body for a country that no longer resembles the simple, blindly supportive one he left.
All of this factors into scenes of Kovic's eventual disintegration, as his family and friends watch him self-destruct in anger and self-pity. The anger, of course, is as much at himself for buying into the illusion as it is for those who peddled it, which again speaks volumes to the times. These are intense scenes, and Cruise is fantastic in them—he creates a character who is almost physically painful to watch.
The later scenes suffer somewhat because they showcase Kovic's development but deprive us of the process. Born on the Fourth of July is a great example of the tendency biopics often have to lead us through “chapters” of a person's life with little connective tissue other than a desire for comprehensiveness. That said, most of these chapters work well—we get a period of time where Kovic retreated to an area of Mexico populated by a number of paralyzed war veterans (one of which is the always terrific Willem Dafoe), an important confession to the family of a fellow soldier, and his eventual involvement as a staunch war activist. I felt less connected to the character as these scenes went on, not because his evolution seemed false, but because the way it was presented seemed rushed and obligatory.
So, where's the controversy?
I don't see much that's controversial here—the controversy lies in the character's own life. By showing how a loyal U.S. Marine turned his support for the war into anti-war efforts at the height of Vietnam, Stone gives us a sense of the controversy he would have created at the time, but Kovic's story had been published for over 10 years when the film was released.
How did Stone hit the zeitgeist this time?
He effectively captures the sense of energy and outrage at the several protests we witness, especially during the 1972 Republican National Convention, which is blended with Nixon's actual speech. The real zeitgeist value here is how well he captures the sense of betrayal that characterized so much of the late 60s and early 70s, and centralizes it in Kovic's very personal struggle. He effectively humanizes the broader characteristics of a whole generation.
That's fine, but is it any good?
The first half of the movie is so powerfully effective that it's almost impossible to diminish it. The later scenes don't work as well for me, and I still don't feel like I understand Kovic the activist like we get to understand Kovic the angry war vet, but at the very least the movie makes it easy to draw a line connecting the two.
Next week: The Doors!