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‘Born on the Fourth of July’

By Desson Howe
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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If there's a secret formula to the great screen epic, it may be in its successful combination of big production values (armies on the plain, etc.) and smaller, human ones (small guy, big ambition), so the movie rings on in the heart and mind.

There's no such ring to Oliver Stone's "Born on the Fourth of July," just the thin, whining sound of Tom Cruise as he tries to undergo an epic genesis, from gung-ho Vietnam soldier to wild-eyed vet in a wheelchair, screaming at Nixon goons at a Republican convention.

Used in strong, one-note roles ("Risky Business," "The Color of Money," "Top Gun" and "Rain Man"), Cruise has been effective. In this modern parable about America (adapted from Ron Kovic's patriotic-riches-to-advocate-rags autobiography), which requires long-term acting finesse, he's all wrong. He starts as a whiny rodent. He ends up as a whiny rodent, only with longer hair.

While Cruise's hair grows, Stone, who's never been afraid to mortar the screen with sophomoric symbolism and liberal smugness, works full time. From the flashback-fogged opening section (Kovic's 1950s parade-float childhood), through a brown-tinted war sequence, a really gross patch-up-the-guts medic scene, an even grosser rat-infested VA hospital and the now-typical Stone drug-anthemic scene (in "Platoon" it was "The Tracks of My Tears," here it's "My Girl"), Stone (with co-adapter Kovic and sentimental sheet-bomb scorer John Williams) over-emphasizes where he could understate and imitates where he should originate.

Obviously in a movie of this size (almost two and a half hours) and with a life as eventful as Kovic's to choose from, there will be moments. There's a misty prom dance (to "Moon River") between wet-haired Cruise and innocent beauty Kyra Sedgwick; a wrestling-match moment in which Cruise tastes the first of many defeats; a striking opening (although cribbed from Francois Truffaut's "Les Mistons") in which kiddie war games become just like the real thing; and there's a memorable tequila-soaked turn by Willem Dafoe, who puts more fireworks into one cameo than Cruise does all movie.

But mostly, Stone has created a film whose overblown parts add up to far less than the epic whole he had in mind.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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