Born on the Fourth of July (1989)

Review #1,096

Director:  Oliver Stone
Cast:  Tom CruiseRaymond J. BarryCaroline Kava
Plot:  The biography of Ron Kovic.  Paralyzed in the Vietnam war, he becomes an anti-war and pro-human rights political activist after feeling betrayed by the country he fought for.

Genre:  Biography / Drama / War
Awards:  Won 2 Oscars - Best Director, Best Film Editing.  Nom. for 6 Oscars - Best Picture, Best Leading Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Sound, Best Original Score.
Runtime:  145min
Rating:  R21 for strong violence, coarse language, sexuality and nudity.

“People say that if you don't love America, then get the hell out.  Well, I love America.”

I think most, maybe all, would agree that director Oliver Stone is now way past his prime.  Perhaps his last decent picture was the biopic Nixon (1995).  He is one of a few well-regarded filmmakers working today who desperately needs a comeback movie, something that is a reminder of the precocious talent that he was in the late 1980s and early 1990s. 

Just like Francis Ford Coppola, whose glory years were that of the 1970s, with films like The Godfather (1972), The Conversation (1974), The Godfather Part II (1974) and Apocalypse Now (1979), Stone's was similar.  His was across the purple patch that included films like Platoon (1986), Salvador (1986), Wall Street (1987), Talk Radio (1988), JFK (1991) and Natural Born Killers (1994).

It is with this context that Born on the Fourth of July can be understood as a typically great effort by the two-time winner of the Best Director Oscar.  It is without doubt one of Stone's stronger works, even within this period of critical success. 

Starring Tom Cruise in possibly his first true dramatic role, the film centers on his character Ron Kovic, a loyal countryman who volunteers to fight in the Vietnam War, only to return home half-paralyzed from injuries.  As the American public struggle to make sense of their country's war involvement, Ron becomes a subject of ridicule and controversy. 

Cruise's performance is outstanding – a rare display of intensity and engagement with the dramatic material.  The film is based on a true story; in fact, the real Ron Kovic co-wrote the screenplay with Stone. 

Once again, Stone shows his fascination for turmoil and truth, the two 'T's that have charted the path for much of his early career.  While much of the film was shot in Texas, Stone obliges with a brutal glimpse of the Vietnam War (shot in the Philippines) through Kovic's eyes as he experiences the harrowing nature of war, including an accidental massacre of women and children.

The war sequence is haunting, and continues to haunt Kovic after his stint.  Unlike Platoon, which operates as a pure war film, Born on the Fourth of July is grounded in politics.  The only common theme is that of morality, in this case the morality of institutional and authoritarian violence, and the truth of its consequence. 

A superb recreation of the 1960s American struggle for freedom, Stone's film is a must-watch, an emotionally-stirring effort backed by a lush, foreboding score by the great composer John Williams.

Verdict:  One of Stone’s stronger works, this recreation of the 1960s American struggle for freedom amid the turmoil of the Vietnam War is at best fervent and emotional.

GRADE: A- (8.5/10 or 4 stars)

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