Written by Ron Kovic and Oliver Stone
Directed by Oliver Stone
As great as our education system was on Long Island, where I grew up, I never had the opportunity in school to really study and understand the events surrounding the Vietnam War. Most of my education on the subject has come from books and documentaries about the time, as well as a little bit from movies, granting that this is Hollywood, and much is fictionalized to make a “better” story.
Born on the Fourth of July is Oliver Stone’s adaptation of the book by the same name (one that I am now going to make it a point to pick up). Although Stone’s star has seemed to fall a bit with the conspiracy-laden film, J.F.K., Born on the Fourth of July is truly an exemplary work, and one that should be viewed by everyone at least once.
The movie spends quite a bit of time setting up the background of Ron Kovic. Growing up in Massapequa, (Long Island) New York, he was the all-American boy in a large, god-fearing, suburban family. This is the set-up of the naive young man swallowing the patriotism that was sold in the 1950’s and early 1960’s hook, line, and sinker. He signs up for the Marines – if you joined, you had your pick of where you went. If you waited until you were drafted, you had no say in where you went. After a recruiter visited Ron’s school, he wanted nothing more than to be a Marine. After that scene, I am very thankful recruiters no longer visit high schools and give speeches like these.
Stone does not show Ron’s basic training, but skips right over to Viet Nam. He also does not show his first tour-of-duty there (Kovic mentions this is his second tour in a casual conversation with a new recruit), which leads me to think it was what he expected of going over there. This is a sharp contrast to the tour he is now about to embark on.
Events take place which damage Ron forever, both physically and mentally. His unit is ill-prepared for what they face: a village where the Viet Cong is using innocent women and children as shields. When they enter a hut and discover the bodies of the victims they just murdered, his platoon begins to fall apart. Ron himself has to practically be dragged out of there away from the survivors, one of which is a crying baby. The sounds of the baby’s cries can be heard as the platoon falls back among the dunes, away from the onslaught of the Viet Cong, until a mortar falls on the hut.
Perhaps because of this, or just due to the general confusion of the day, the second incident occurs. As they are withdrawing and the last man comes over the dune Ron has taken cover, he shoots him three times, believing he is Viet Cong. As Ron tries to tell his commanding officer what has happened, the officer covers it up.
This is one point where I had to ponder the reasoning for this. Does the officer believe that is the best course of action for the men under him? Does he accept “friendly fire” accidents as just one of those unfortunate parts of war? Does he honestly believe they can kill one of their comrades and simply forget about it and not have it affect them? Or is he doing it for a bigger reason – covering it up to try to keep support for the war going back in the States?
Stone never answers this question, and it’s one point that really stood our to me. Perhaps even Kovic himself is not sure of what his commanding officer’s motivation was. It’s a question I will definitely look to the book for an answer on.
The second half of the film deals with the fallout on Ron and the people around him after he returns home from the war. Gravely injured and confined to a wheelchair for the remainder of his life, he comes home still the “all-American boy”. He is a war hero, and is treated as such by his family, neighbors, and town.
However, there is erosion at the edges. His one brother is against the war and the two have terrible arguments. He descends into alcoholism and has violent, vicious tirades against his family. Eventually his eyes are forced open to the lies he has been told. He realizes how ill-prepared he and his fellow soldiers were for what they faced in Viet Nam.
People here – they don’t give a shit about the war! To them it’s a million miles away. It’s all bullshit, anyway. I mean, the government sold us a bill of goods and we bought it, and got the shit kicked out of us, and for what, huh?
This is easily Tom Cruise’s greatest performance. His transformation from the beginning of the film to the end, both physically and mentally, is completely believable. He gives Kovic the youthful energy an naivete in the beginning as well as the cynical edge in the end. All the way through the film, Cruise seems to bring out the character. The hardest scene had to be the one where Kovic is coming to terms with his demons and talking to the family of the soldier he killed accidentally. It would have been easy to over-act in this scene, but Cruise conveys Kovic’s torment as well as his discomfort in the situation, while at the same time I could tell it was something he needed to do for his own mental health.
Willem DaFoe gives a performance as another physically and mentally affected veteran, Charlie, that makes me wonder how his career deteriorated from this fantastic performance to being the Green Goblin in Spider-Man. It’s a performance very reminiscent of Gary Sinise’s in Forrest Gump, but there’s no on-screen resolution for Charlie, which gives the film a bit more of an edge.
As I watched it, I had trouble digesting that this movie was made in 1989. The statements and actions of our government shown in the movie seem identical to what has gone on in this country over the last year. If it had been released in the last few months, it would be easy to dismiss it as anti-government propaganda on the part of Stone, but on reflection now it seems almost prophetic. Watching the shabby conditions of the Veterans’ Administration hospital Ron is sent to after his injury and hearing the doctors and staff there lament the budget cuts is all too reminiscent of the fact that just a few months ago while our soldiers were still facing challenges in Iraq, our current President cut funding to Veteran’s and military benefits while giving tax breaks to the rich.
This is also true when there are rantings of this being a “businessman’s war” and various other statements which made me feel as if we could take the exact same script and change the location to Iraq. Instead of “stopping the spread of communism” we are now “fighting terrorism”, but the rest of the words all seem the same. I do think we’ve learned enough as a nation not to treat the soldiers that come back from a war the way they are treated here – whether we disagree with the war or not. In the case of Ron Kovic, he carried enough of his own baggage about what happened over there that he didn’t need the baggage added on when anti-war protesters called returning soldiers “murderers”.
However, if nothing else the movie did leave me feeling a little optimistic that our country had survived a time when we were very divided along the same lines as we seem to be now. It’s just a shame that humans cannot seem to learn anything from our past history and continue to repeat the same mistakes.
To read my review of the book upon which this is based, please see Born on the Fourth of July by Ron Kovic