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‘Born on the Fourth of July’

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
January 05, 1990


Oliver Stone
Tom Cruise;
Kyra Sedgwick;
Willem Dafoe;
Raymond J. Barry;
Tom Berenger
Under 17 restricted
Director; Editing

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Oliver Stone's "Born on the Fourth of July" unfurls itself with an ambitious flourish, like a stirring, patriotic anthem. It's his Main Street symphony, and in every frame, you feel his passion to make a grandiose social statement, to unload the movie equivalent of the Great American Novel and to define our age. In every frame you feel him emptying out his heart and soul.

This is an impassioned movie, made with conviction and evangelical verve. It's also hysterical and overbearing and alienating. Using Ron Kovic's autobiographical account of his lower-middle-class, small-town American upbringing, Stone stretches an epic canvas and splatters onto it all his beliefs about Vietnam, America, family, patriotism, and just about everything that's happened here in the last quarter-century.

This is not new territory for Stone. The film could almost be called "Platoon, Part Two"; it establishes the social and political context that led to Vietnam, plus its thundering aftershocks.

He begins Kovic's saga before Kovic enlists in the Marines for a tour in Vietnam that ultimately leaves him paralyzed from the chest down and leads him to overturn his cradle-born beliefs in God and country. It's easy to see why Stone chose Kovic's story to tell -- it isn't simply about the war; it's about the disenchantment over the loss of the American dream. It's about how Kovic -- who's played with diligence here by Tom Cruise and who stands in for millions of others like him -- is betrayed by the Fourth of July parades he's watched as a boy, by the John Wayne movies and the Yankee Doodle hoopla. About how everything in the culture, from playing war games in the woods as a boy to high school wrestling, draws this American Everyman to fight in Southeast Asia and lose all that matters to him -- his body, his values, his family, his country.

Kovic's book -- which he and Stone adapted for the screen -- tells of younger days wall-to-wall with dreams of glory and heroism. His father -- who's played by Raymond J. Barry and comes off as more of a weakling than in the book -- works at the A&P; The son wants more, and in Cruise's portrayal, his determination to succeed makes him seem grim and slightly haunted. Cruise is effective early as a square-shouldered, intensely disciplined boy dominated by his sternly devout mother (Caroline Kava).

These opening scenes -- which are set in Kovic's hometown of Massapequa, N.Y. -- are loaded with farm-fresh normalcy. But the camera-flexing, emphatic style that Stone uses gives them a kind of spooky burn. Stone, of course, can't help signaling that this all-American existence is going to turn into a horror show. The techniques he employs, in fact, are those of horror movies. When the scene shifts to Vietnam and Kovic and his unit mistakenly fire on a village of women and children, Stone and his cinematographer Robert Richardson give the carnage a maddened frenzy. He makes sure the screaming baby sprawled next to its dead mother is burned into our minds and locks us inside the young soldier's confused thought processes as, struggling with the blinding sun and the chaos of moving bodies, he kills one of his own men.

This is the film's pivotal moment, and it's shot with a searing dynamism. In it, all the moral underpinnings of Kovic's life are destroyed. Later, when a bullet severs nerves, leaving him without feeling in his lower body and unable to walk, the point is underscored. In body and mind, he has been ravaged.

Dramatically, the long following section, in which Kovic is forced through the hell of recovery in pigsty conditions in an understaffed veterans hospital, doesn't contribute anything essential, but in Stone's view that is probably the reason the picture was made. He didn't include the treatment of veterans in "Platoon," and he presents Kovic's ordeal as a kind of septic immersion -- a sordid rite of passage.

Here Stone is more an advocate for social justice than an artist. The scenes in Mexico -- where Kovic escapes after being kicked out of his parent's house and finds acceptance among a clot of disaffected vets led by a Manson-like figure played by Willem Dafoe -- are, in their own fevered, hallucinatory terms, the film's best.

Afterward, the movie shifts, first to Kovic's purifying confession of his sins to the parents of the boy he killed, and then to his transformation into an anti-war activist. This metamorphosis culminates in his speech before the 1980 Democratic National Convention, where his mother's dream is realized and the film comes full circle. It's hard to imagine, though, that audiences will feel similarly transformed. "Born on the Fourth of July" is nettlesome work. Stone has gifts as a filmmaker, but subtlety is not one of them. In essence, he's a propagandist, and, as it turns out, the least effective representative for his point of view. Stone wants desperately to effect a radical transformation in his audience. But it's this panicky drive to convert us to his way of thinking that undermines Stone's message.

It's not so much that what he puts on screen is negligible. The perceptions are valid, but they're not particularly original, and his personal investment in his issues and his vivid, hyperbolic style camouflage just how commonplace his ideas are. His major failing, though, is that he's not interested in any emotional state that doesn't include fireworks and strobe effects. Cruise's work in front of the camera is as ardent as his director's behind it. But Stone doesn't give his actors much room to work. He's too busy filling in all the details himself.

There's another problem: Because there have now been so many films about Vietnam, because we've seen so many innocent villagers gunned down, so many accidental deaths, so much tragedy and pain, unless a radically different perspective is presented -- as in De Palma's "Casualties of War" -- a numbing sense of familiarity sets in. If we're going to have to endure these tortures again, there had better be an urgent and essential need for it. In "Born on the Fourth of July," the urgency is there, but ultimately, urgency alone is not good enough.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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