Early in Oliver Stone’s Born On The Fourth Of July, young Ron Kovic of Massapequa, New York steps up to the plate wearing the crisp new Yankees cap he got for his birthday. Craaaaaack! He hits a dinger, over the head of a poaching centerfielder. John Williams’ score, somber yet orchestrated to the hilt, swells with emotion as the boy rounds the bases in slow motion, his father jumping up and down, a dogpile of teammates greeting him at home plate. In true Oliver Stone style, this is no ordinary home run, but an American triumph, a symbol of a happier, more innocent time of the mid-’50s, before the Baby Boomers hit the turbulence of the following decade. That Stone stops short of having Kovic’s mother waiting in the wings with a slice of warm apple pie and a scoop of vanilla ice cream is a show of restraint.
Yet the iconography of this moment—and many others like it throughout the film—holds tremendous power, miraculously validating Stone’s worst instincts as a filmmaker. From the beginning, Stone posits the story of Ron Kovic as the story of America herself, a 40-year odyssey that spans from the naïve idealism of the ’50s and early ’60s to the literally crippling disillusionment of the Vietnam War and the hard-won political consciousness that followed. After telling his own story in the Oscar-winning Platoon, Stone extrapolates Kovic’s to such a gargantuan scale that no Baby Boomer cliché goes unexploited. But the film has the operatic sweep Stone intends, finding in Kovic the most potent symbol imaginable for an entire generation.
Only a year removed from doing the “Hippy Hippy Shake” in Cocktail, Tom Cruise seized on the opportunity to put his cocky image through the ringer, and his movie-star handsomeness adds extra impact to Kovic’s wrenching transformation. From the Americana of those childhood days in Massapequa, Stone follows Kovic as he enthusiastically volunteers to fight the Communist threat in Vietnam, confident that his country has signed him onto a righteous cause. On his second tour of duty, he’s crushed by a series of traumas: He witnesses the slaughter of Vietnamese villagers, kills a fellow Marine in a friendly-fire incident, and finally gets cut down in a firefight that leaves him paralyzed from the waist down. His “love it or leave it” attitude about America starts to change when the country rewards his sacrifice with squalid rehabilitation facilities and an utter indifference to what’s really happening half a world away.
Stone lays the melodrama on too thickly at times, leading to spittle-filled rampages like a notorious scene where Kovic berates his mother about the things she doesn’t want to hear. But even that blowup is redeemed by a quietly devastating moment when he laments a future that’s no longer possible. A long sequence in Mexico where he sinks into booze and hookers represents Stone at his most agonizingly indulgent, but the grand scope of Kovic’s journey is never entirely lost. True to its title, Born On The Fourth Of July is foremost an act of clear-eyed patriotism, as hard to deny as the fireworks that light up the Massapequa sky.
Key features: An excellent Stone commentary track recounts the decade-long struggle to bring Kovic’s story to the screen, and a 20-minute NBC Backstory segment finds Bryant Gumbel asking really strange questions of Stone, Kovic, and Cruise.