A Vietnam Story Of Agony And Hope

Posted: January 05, 1990

Over the heartbreaking course of Born on the Fourth of July, Ron Kovic is transformed from a crew-cut patriot to a long-haired protester against the war he once believed in. It was a war that left Kovic trapped in a wheelchair - a paralyzed veteran who became a potent symbol to a generation shattered in body and soul by Vietnam.

Director Oliver Stone is a member of that generation, and a Vietnam vet

himself. He vented his stored rage in Platoon; he's a filmmaker of unique and proven credentials on this subject. In Born on the Fourth of July, he moves

from platoon to platform - the podium from which Kovic found a measure of vindication and catharsis as he addressed the 1976 Democratic convention.

If anything, Stone's observation of Kovic's journey - from blind trust in the cause of American arms, through the madness and random horror of the war, to his return as a cripple to a country in uproar - is even more unrelenting and feral in its intensity than Platoon.

That landmark in the canon of Vietnam films - the first real grunt's-eye-view of what went on there - was a frontal assault on the senses. Even though most of Born on the Fourth of July (a title that becomes increasingly ironic with each succeeding scene) unfolds in this country, Stone adopts much the same strategy. This is a film that piles image upon searing image in a near frenzy. For 144 unflinching minutes, there is not a moment's respite.

This technique sometimes gets away from Stone in more civilian material (Talk Radio is a prime example), but the hold that Vietnam has on our collective memory and the continuing fallout from the war make it a perfect milieu for this director. And in Kovic he has the ultimate emblem - one broken life that touches on the experience of both those who faithfully went off to war and those who defied it on the streets. Further, in the sternly Catholic, blue-collar Kovic family - with the parents loyally supporting Ron's decision to enlist in the Marines, and a brother questioning the morality of Vietnam and the veracity of Lyndon Johnson and his henchmen - Stone has a pliant microcosm for exploring how Vietnam tore so many households asunder.

Some may find that Stone is intoxicated by the metaphor Kovic presents. And there are moments when the director goes overboard, such as Mrs. Kovic's prediction - as the family watches President John F. Kennedy's inaugural address - that one day Ron will speak to a great crowd. But in Tom Cruise, Born on the Fourth of July has a counterweight to check a strong director.

In his two finest films to date, The Color of Money and Rain Man, Cruise has given us hustlers. Although his work was greeted with enthusiasm - not to mention surprise in some quarters at the talent lurking in a teen icon - it was overshadowed by Oscar-winning performances from Paul Newman and Dustin Hoffman. In Born on the Fourth of July, Cruise has the screen to himself, and what he does with the room has made him one of the heavy favorites for an Academy Award this spring.

Stone shoots much of the movie - whether from a trench or a wheelchair - from Kovic's perspective. Cruise draws the audience so deeply into Kovic's pain that by the end of the movie we are virtually entwined with it. His judgment of the trajectory of Kovic's tragedy is meticulously and seamlessly calibrated; there are points in the movie where your seat in the theater is going to start feeling like a wheelchair.

The film begins with children playing soldier in the woods and Ron as a boy watching an Independence Day parade in which the wounded veterans of Korea and World War II roll by in their wheelchairs. Not a subtle image, admittedly, but this is not a subtle picture. Ron is a gung-ho believer, the kind of kid who spends prom night getting ready for boot camp at Parris Island.

When he arrives in Vietnam, he is plunged into the chaos and accidentally kills a comrade. His commanding officer doesn't want to know about it. Thus, when Ron is gravely wounded, he comes home with a massive guilt to go with his terrible and irreversible injuries.

Still, he insists on my-country-right-or-wrong - an attitude that begins to change in the VA hospital, where abysmal conditions are presented in nauseating detail. Rats scurry about, basic supplies are short and patients lie untended in their own excrement. From this point on, Born on the Fourth of July is a volcano - with molten fury coursing through it like lava.

Kovic's pain and grief, his alcoholism and seemingly futile search for solace or meaning are laid out with graphic brutality. Born on the Fourth of July is not a film that you merely watch; it is one that makes you bear witness to a terrible wrong.

When he accepted the Oscar for directing Platoon, Stone said he hoped the impact of the film would assure that a Vietnam would never happen again. Born on the Fourth of July makes such a prospect unimaginable.

BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY * * * *

Produced by A. Kitman Ho and Oliver Stone; directed by Stone; written by Stone and Ron Kovic; photography by Robert Richardson; music by John Williams; distributed by Universal Studios.

Running time: 2 hours, 24 mins.

Ron Kovic - Tom Cruise

Mr. Kovic - Raymond J. Barry

Mrs. Kovic - Caroline Kava

Donna - Kyra Sedgwick

Charlie - Willem Dafoe

Parent's guide: R (profanity, violence, sex)

Showing at: area theaters

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