Tom Cruise stars in Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July, based on the autobiography of Ron Kovic, a paralyzed Vietnam War veteran who became an anti-war activist. The film starts off by showing Kovic’s childhood and teenage years, where we see a patriotic young man, dedicated to serving in the Marines. After losing the use of his body from the chest down as a result of a war injury, however, he becomes bitter and hurt, and begins slowly noticing the flawed system that got him where he is. It is through this emasculation and suffering that Kovic achieves his character arc, one fraught with moments of depression, hopelessness, and eventually, hope.
The film runs nearly two and a half hours, but hardly misses a beat, owing to Oliver Stone’s magnificent directing, and wonderful sense of pace. During the Vietnam War scenes, he is unafraid to be graphic and shocking, and creates emotionally tense sequences that are as heart-wrenching as they are gut-wrenching. Stone wields his camera like a weapon, stabbing deep into the horror and sadness that encapsulates the story.
What holds the film together even more than the directing, however, is one of Tom Cruise’s best performances. The parallels drawn between Kovic’s early life and later sufferings are brought out flawlessly with bravura acting. Once a star athlete who would do anything to help his country, Kovic is now barely able to move his body. At first, he tries to make the best of his situation, keeping his upper body fit through exercise as he recovers in a military hospital. However, once Kovic eventually realizes how far he has fallen, bitter hate boils up inside of him like hot lava. This formerly fit young man is struck with feelings of injustice; is the reward for serving his country a lifetime of trauma? He temporarily moves to Mexico, seeking solace from his fury with the U.S.A. and starts his path to becoming an anti-war pacifist. This transformation is earned, because Cruise is so convincing as a man who has been through the wringer.
For all the positives contained in Born on the Fourth of July, this does have a script co-penned by Oliver Stone, leading to the film’s only major shortcoming: its heavy-handed bias. Moments in the movie literally feel like direct preachings to the audience, as the material is handled in the least subtle way possible. Whether or not you are on Kovic’s side, there is no denying that the screenplay often makes its points by outright making the points! Rather than employing imagery and story to let viewers come to their own conclusions about the issues presented in the movie, the screenwriters feel the need to hit us over the head. Thankfully, this flaw is not prevalent throughout the entire film, and only really becomes a problem in the final act. Nevertheless, Stone decidedly uses a tactic that makes his picture a very good one, rather than a great one.
Despite the script often lacking subtlety, this is one of Oliver Stone’s best films. His direction is strong as can be, and Cruise’s acting is convincingly human. Patriotic, but noting America’s flaws at the same time, Born on the Fourth of July is a portrait of loss and courageous hope.