US Release Date: 12-22-1989
Directed by: Oliver Stone
- Tom Cruise, as
- Ron Kovic
- Raymond J. Barry, as
- Mr. Kovic
- Caroline Kava, as
- Mrs. Kovic
- Josh Evans, as
- Tommy Kovic
- Willem Dafoe, as
- Tom Berenger, as
- Recruiting Gunnery Sgt. Hayes
- Frank Whaley, as
- Jerry Levine, as
- Steve Boyer
- Kyra Sedgwick, as
- Donna, Ron's Girlfriend
- Tom Sizemore, as
- Vet - Villa Dulce
- Rob Camilletti, as
- Tommy Finnelli
- Stephen Baldwin, as
- Billy Vorsovich
- Rocky Carroll, as
- Willie - VA Hospital
- Lili Taylor, as
- Jamie Wilson - Georgia
- Edie Brickell, as
- Folk Singer - Syracuse, NY
- Vivica A. Fox, as
- Hooker in VA hospital
- Wayne Knight as
- Official #2 - Democratic Convention
Tom Cruise as Ron Kovic in Born on the Fourth of July.
Born on the Fourth of July is the second movie in Oliver Stone's Vietnam trilogy. It follows Platoon (1986) and precedes Heaven & Earth (1993). It was based on the 1976 autobiography of the same name written by paralyzed Vietnam War veteran Ron Kovic. He co-wrote the adapted screenplay with Oliver Stone. Tom Cruise gave the performance of his career as Ron, earning his first Oscar nomination in the process. Born on the Fourth of July was nominated for a total of eight Academy Awards, it won for director and editing. It was a commercial hit as well, grossing more than 160 million dollars worldwide.
It begins with an idylic suburban American childhood in Massapequa, Long Island where Ron Kovic entered the world on July 4, 1946. Not since Yankee Doodle Dandy nearly half a century earlier had a movie opened with such a display of patriotic flag waving. Kovic even borrowed a line from George M. Cohan's 1904 song “Yankee Doodle Boy” for his book's title. Although Cohan stretched the truth a bit as he was actually born on July 3, as was Tom Cruise.
We witness Ron's all-American upbringing, which lasts until the day he enlists in the marines. He volunteers even knowing full well that he will end up on the front line in Vietnam. The second section of the movie deals with his time in combat. During a confusing battle Ron accidentally shoots a fellow American soldier. Later, when he tries to tell his superior officer the truth, he is basically told to just shut up about it. Ron's disillusionment with the military begins and it leads him down a path he could never have foreseen.
Eventually Ron is seriously injured and spends time convalescing in a run down, rat infested veterans hospital. Confined to a wheelchair, Ron grows increasingly bitter and angry at his circumstances. He gets discharged, moves back home, and has an emotional confrontation with his mother in the middle of the night. For the first time in his life he begins to question everything he was raised to believe in unwaveringly, including God and Country.
Next Ron's path leads to Mexico where he meets a group of fellow expatriate veterans, most of whom are paralyzed or maimed in some way. These guys pay prostitutes for whatever kind of sex they can physically manage. Just when Ron hits rock bottom he finds his voice and begins protesting the war. This once gung ho young soldier's point of view has come full circle and he now finds himself protesting against the same government he nearly gave his life defending.
Oliver Stone's direction and editing hold up well and were both deserving of the Oscars they won. Stone was highly influential in his camera technique and ahead of his time in terms of his use of quick edits. Visually, this movie still seems quite modern and fresh a quarter of a century after it was made. It also doesn't shy away from the gory reality of war and its messy aftermath. We see horrible gaping wounds and bed pans filled with runny shit.
Tom Cruise goes from all-American suburban high school jock to a filthy long-haired hippie in a wheelchair. It is quite a transformation and he commits to it completely. Born on the Fourth of July is an antiwar movie that tells one man's personal journey. Ron Kovic volunteered to fight for his country in Vietnam. He came face to face with the horrors of war as well as the reality of the politics that goes on behind the scenes, and he became a changed man. This movie tells his gripping story in an emotionally powerful manner. Tom Cruise is a revelation. He proves himself to be much more than a movie star, he is also a wonderful actor. Born on the Fourth of July is a great American film.
Tom Cruise in Born on the Fourth of July.
Oliver Stone served in the infantry in Vietnam from September 1967 to November 1968. He received the Bronze Star and a Purple Heart with an Oak Leaf Cluster. Like many veterans of that war, it seems to have played a very formative part of his personality and point of view. Certainly the early part of his career was very much associated with that time period and that war in particular. His personal experience helps to give this movie a feeling of authenticity, particularly the, admittedly, rather brief scenes of battle. However, even a small amount of research shows that much of the story has been fabricated or at least dramatically heightened. Stone is telling the story of Ron Kovic, but with a definite Hollywood spin. Dramatically, these changes are fine, but the based on a true story label should be regarded with a healthy sense of skepticism.
I agree with Patrick that Cruise is terrific in the lead role. I remember at the time of its release that many wrote that this part was his deliberate grab for an Oscar and playing someone with a physical disability under less than attractive hair and makeup does seem like that's what he was doing, but who cares so long as the actor can deliver a top rate performance as Cruise does. Ron goes through physical trauma as well as extreme mental torture as he becomes fully aware of what his life has been reduced to. He isn't always the most likable person and he doesn't handle things nobly or with a stiff upper lip, but which of us would? His story is an engrossing one, at least for the first three-quarters of the film. His eventual transformation from basketcase to anti-war protestor seems abrupt and not as fully developed as the earlier portions, but this is a fault of the script rather than of Cruise.
Likewise, I agree that from a technical standpoint the film is terrific. Stone has an eye for setting up shots and his use of light and color are excellent. Each scene is shot in hues of red, white, and blue depending upon the mood, with red for the battle scenes, white for dream sequences and blue for the more dramatic moments. Stone is a better director than a writer as he can't keep his heavy-handed politics out of his films. Patrick is right when he says that it holds up very well 25 years after it was released. It has a sense of timelessness about it and its depiction of the 1960s and 1970s is well done without ever resorting to cliches and stereotypes. The fashion, sets and cars are appropriate and authentic without being overdone.
Many of the people depicted in the film have complained about their portrayals and disputed the events as they are shown. These range from the small parts, including Ron's wrestling coach, who is shown as something of a drill sergeant, urging his students to "Kill, kill, kill.", to Ron's mother who protested her depiction as a religious fanatic. Likewise, Ron's commanding officer in Vietnam who tells him to be quiet about the shooting of a fellow soldier in the film disagrees with his portrayal. In real life he has stated in interviews that an investigation was made into that killing and no fault was ever placed on Ron for it. Although I'm sure skeptics will say that of course he would say that, however, what's definitely true is that Ron never visited that soldier's home and claimed responsibility for his death as he does in the film. Also true is that the college protest Ron attended, which was a real incident, didn't end with riot police beating the crap out of students with clubs. Other attendees of the protest have spoken about how peaceful the protest was, without a police presence at all. And Ron's visit to the Republican convention also ended peacefully, with Ron and his fellow protestors simply being rolled out of the hall and not in violent carnage as depicted. It's easy to see what Stone's political views are in all of these scenes as Republicans are all shown to be enthusiastic supporters of the war while the film ends with Ron speaking at the Democratic convention where he is treated like a hero. No mention of the fact that it was two Republican presidents (Nixon and Ford) who actually ended our participation in the war is ever made. Again, if you treat the film as pure fiction, none of this matters, but when a movie claims to be based on a true story, it's annoying when it veers so far from the truth.
Thanks to a strong performance by Cruise and some technical brilliance by Stone, this film remains highly watchable. Its anti-war message is eternally relevant. Even with Stone's soapbox political points this is a powerful film.
Tom Cruise in Born on the fourth of July
I like Oliver Stone movies for one reason. They allow me to rant on about politics as his movies are so often politically motivated. Scott wrote how Born on the Fourth of July does not mention that a Republican president ended the war, but Stone also failed to mention that Democrat President Lyndon Johnson lied to the American people about the “Gulf of Tonkin Resolution” which was effectively used as a declaration of war. LBJ won re-election on a pledge not to send American boys to fight in Asia but shortly thereafter did just that.
Let’s review. A Democrat President lied to start the Vietnam war while a Republican President pulled us out, yet Oliver Stone as well as Ron Kovic still seem to be blaming Republicans. I guess many of us have been conditioned to blindly believe what we have been told without question or believe what we want despite facts telling us otherwise. Did you know that over 1,500 US troops have died in Afghanistan during Obama’s presidency? Not since Vietnam has a President had so much blood on his hands, yet Obama was given a Nobel Peace Prize?
Born on the Fourth of July begins like All Quiet on the Western Front. Some young men get caught up in the furor and supposed glory of war. Have you ever wondered why a majority of soldiers are right out of high school? Is it because they are in the best shape of their life? No. It is because they are easy to influence and manipulate. As this film depicts, these boys have spent their entire lives taking directions, orders and commands from parents, teachers, bosses and coaches. They have never had to think on their own. They have been conditioned to be controlled. Put them in front of a tough acting older man in a uniform and these boys become willing slaves.
The first act of Born on the Fourth of July could be titled “naïve” and the second “education” as Ron experiences the confused chaos of war. Look how the sergeant asks Ron if he sees guns in the distant village. No guns are shown but Ron, thinking he is giving the answer he is supposed to, tells him he does. I go back to my previous point. A middle aged man would not have been so intimidated into giving an obviously wrong answer. I get why the officer tells Ron that it was not his fault for shooting the other soldier. What does he have to gain by scolding or court marshaling him? It was an accident. If he can convince Ron it was not his fault, Ron may be psychologically better off and the officer will not lose another man.
My brothers mentioned the gore and the scene in the field hospital with men bleeding profusely and writhing in agony is hard to watch. Did you know that there is no criteria for what injuries are worthy of a Purple Heart? Ron Kovic earned his for nearly losing his life while John Kerry got his for a scratch that required a topical antibiotic and a band aid.
Kovic’s story reminded me of John Kerry. Kerry volunteered for the Navy, signing an Officer Candidate contract to join the Naval Reserves after his 1966 deferment request to study in France for a year was denied. John Kerry protested the Vietnam War after getting released from service because he received three purple hearts for superfluous wounds. He gave a 1971 speech to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where he stated that his fellow Vietnam Veterans had, “…personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks, and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam in addition to the normal ravage of war…”
Like Kerry, Kovic became a Vietnam War protestor, only he was a paraplegic from a middle class home with little, to no, prospects in life while Kerry came from a family of wealth with plenty of connections. The first lesson Kovic learns is that everyone he knows does not share his opinion of the war. He meets protestors who state that they do it so more young men do not come home like him. He suffers physically as well as mentally from PTSD and haunting memories.
Born on the Fourth of July is every step of the way an anti-war film. I am not bothered by that but the dramatic license Stone took with the police beating the protestors and arresting Kovic is appalling. How good is your argument if you have to lie to make it? Who does Stone think he is, a politician?
I felt sorry for Kovic early in the film as he was young and dumb. Other times, not so much. He attacks his family and wallows in his self-pity. I do not blame him for his lack of self-respect and dignity but I do not admire him for it either. I did like his statement to the reporters, “The government is a bunch of corrupt, thieves and rapists and robbers.” Whereas Kerry blamed his fellow soldiers, Kovic pointed the finger in the right direction.
Born on the Fourth of July provided Tom Cruise with a great role and Oliver Stone with an opportunity to express his views. Stone leads us through the paces of being persuaded into patriotism and seduced by political opinion. The film is well put together but it takes too long to say war is hell.
Photos © Copyright Universal Pictures (1989)