An incredibly textured, multi-layered and introspective epic about America, the effects of the Vietnam war, and how the nation changed.
BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY is based on the book of the same name by Ron Kovic, who’s life the film tries to tell. However, to be quite honest, Kovic in the film is more of a figure representative of a lot of different people; the youth that grew up in the religious, patriotic and competetive, sqeuaky clean household of the fifties, but with the seams coming clear.
The film begins in this seemingly benign world and Oliver Stone, a Vietnam Vet himself, paints an eerily sentimental but nostalgic vision of fifties America, which begins, appropriately enough, on the fourth of july. A parade of flags, school bands, baton throwers, clowns, and finally, WWI and II vets walk past the young Kovic, sitting on the shoulders of his father. One in particular stands out to him: an older man in uniform sitting in a wheelchair, reacting rather apprehensively to the firecrackers as if they were gunshots.
There is to be dramatic irony here…but later.
The opening sequences show young Kovic, now on the wrestling team, trying to satisfy his competetive urges. He doesn’t seem to be that bright, but he appears to be a good kid, though a little over-zealous. Then the war enters his mind. He decides that the best way to serve his country is to enlist.
What happens during his experiences in Vietnam are…shall we say, horrific? That would be an understatement. He commits an act that would torment him for many years: friendly fire, killing a fellow soldier. It all culminates in Kovic gettign wounded, ending up in the VA hospital, a hellish environment that is so horrible you can’t quite believe this even existed. But alas, conditions in such places were poor.
What follows in the second act is the examination of Kovic’s new world, as well as his new self. He is both physically and mentally altered: he becomes paralyzed from the waist down. He feels that he is being judged unfairly by his family because he is handicapped. His friends have either died in the war or become rather cynical due to what has happened. He himself is all mixed up, at first hating the protesters of the war, but slowly, and eventually, switching over, finding his true calling.
Since this is an epic, the film takes great pains to create and show the world as it was in the fifties and sixties. The shift from nostalgic loveboat music, to sunshine pop “Up, up and away”, to psychadelic rock, illustrates a tumultuous time that seemed both schizophrenic, odd, and yet exhilirating in its turbulence. In any case, it was a strange time.
Kovic himself is shown to be an infinitely complex character. To be quite honest, Cruise plays him as unappealingly as possible, even as a kid. Despite his aggresively abrasive personality, Kovic is still sympathetic, mostly due to the fact that he doesn’t really know any better. Until he makes peace with himself can he grow as an individual in this strange world of his.
Some of the more interesting sequences are, oddly enough, not the war scenes. The VA hospital part is grueling and gross in its meticulous attention to detail with how terrible the setting was and how poor care was for the the vets coming home.
Men are stripped naked, while strapped to tables and sprayed with water, while we see a man’s bared butt blistered with bed sores, crap all over the floor.
The nurses swear up a storm while rats are coming in. Kovic himself almost loses his leg because he’s convinced he can learn to walk again, and in the process, ends up getting a compound fracture, though he can’t feel it when it happens.
Perhaps the most mystical part of the film occurs in Mexico, when Kovic goes on a sort of sabbatical through a hellish landscape of broken men from the war, both literally and metaphorically. Whores and red lights are everywhere, men drink liquor with worms in it, Kovic is invited into the room of a woman, even though he has lost the ability to even have sex or have children. Willem Dafoe has a wonderful performance as the physical manifestation of the darkest corners of a man, living while dying.
One moment in particular stands out, where Kovic and Dafoe’s character are lost in the desert for one reason or another. We see two men, in their wheelchairs, in the middle of nowhere, cussing and blaming each other. At this point, Kovic realizes how absurd his life up until this point has been. It’s even more brilliant when you realize that most of the film has been carried by Cruise’s performance. The transformation from difficult, confused man, to broken individual, to resilient and clear-minded protester is convincing as it is spectacular.
Even though it is an epic, the film has moments of intense interior drama. Sometimes, it becomes rather difficult to watch as Stone manages to penetrate some very issues close to the heart. Watching the Kovic Family literally fall apart is quite harrowing as it is fascinating to watch.
Although there are important players throughout the story, Kovic and America remain the focus. In fact, some characters dissapear altogether. The Kyra Sedgwick character, who plays Kovic’s girl-next-door, vanishes from the film after a big protest scene for no particular reason. Kovic’s family for that matter also vanishes after he goes to Mexico, and they never address if he ever reconciled with or what. It’s a minor but still, nagging element that the film never ties up. But in a picture like this, it’s not of great importance. Stone has bigger fish to fry, and indeed, the movie just goes and goes until it reaches a rather triumphant finale.
BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY really stands on its own compared to other war films. It’s certainly the anithesis of APOCALYPSE NOW, that is, in terms of cynicism and grimness. Compared to Coppola’s film Stone’s picture seems downright cheery eyed. That’s not to say the film isn’t hard. Not by a stretch. But it is certainly more optimistic and definitely hopeful.
In the end, the film is really supported by Cruise’s great performance, which is magnetic, powerful, and difficult to watch, as he embodies Kovic’s character throughout the entire film.