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BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Tom Cruise, Kyra Sedgwick, Frank Whaley, Willem Dafoe
Director:  Oliver Stone
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  Universal
Features:  Production Notes, Talent Files
Length:  145 Minutes
Release Date:  April 28, 1998

Film ****

There are many moments in Born on the Fourth of July that are unforgettable, but one in particular stands out—what you might call the dividing point in Ron Kovic’s (Cruise) life.  In Vietnam, during an ambush, he gets hit in the back of the foot, but he doesn’t give up.  He struggles to right himself, continuing to fire round after round at the approaching enemy.  He gets hit again, and this time he drops.  The picture slows down to follow his backwards fall.  A glob of blood escapes his lips as his head hits the ground.  His fist clutches the grass in agony.  As the world fades around him, the only sound is the thin, strained echo of his childhood friends from their soldier playing days:

“Ronnie’s DEAD!  Ronnie’s DEAD!”…

And “why” seems like such an understatement of a question at a moment like that, yet ask we must.  Was it the gung-ho desire to be number one that Ron possessed, the one we saw earlier in the film as he trained like a madman for his wrestling match that made him get back up one more time?  Or was he distracted from the strain of the war, in which his squad inadvertently wiped out a group of innocent villagers, including women and children?  Or maybe his own personal demon, the fact that he accidentally killed one of his own men in a chaotic firefight?  Maybe all of these.  Maybe none.

Whatever we can or can’t ascribe to that moment is immaterial.  What matters is from that moment on, neither Ron nor his world will ever be the same.  It will be a long fight from him to get back home, and when he does, he only finds that home has changed as much as he had, and they don’t fit together the way they once did.

Director Oliver Stone created perhaps the quintessential Vietnam movie in Platoon three years prior.  It was both unique and indelible because it came from the imagination of a man who had been there, and survived it.  But Stone not only made it through the war, he also made it through the long, painful rebuilding period he and all vets had to face here at home, and it is in that spirit that he brought to life the true story of Ron Kovic, who co-wrote the screenplay with Stone based on his own autobiography.

The result remains, some ten years later, one of the most powerful films I have ever seen.  To watch it is not only to observe a masterful filmmaker at work, who fully understands the emotional potency of film, it is to follow Ron and all wounded vets on their eventual journey to find a home again in their country.

Ron literally was born on the Fourth of July, and as such, he seemed to burn with patriotic fire even from childhood.  An early scene shows him on his father’s shoulders, watching the hometown Independence Day parade.  “Look, daddy!  The soldiers!” he cries, and the crowd roars with approval at the uniformed men who make their way down the street.  Some are in wheelchairs.  Some are missing limbs.  All react with fright to the sounds of the firecrackers going off around them.  Naturally, we can see it’s all foreshadowing.  But for Ron, he sees only the positive path set before him.  He is going to be a soldier. 

Later, when a paralyzed Ron returns home, there’s another parade scene.  This one is for him, but it’s decidedly different.  He smiles and waves, the music plays, the firecrackers sound…but most only stare at him like a freak.  Some protesters even scream and curse at him.  He gets up on stage in his wheelchair and tries to give a rousing speech, but falls apart.  The sounds of crying babies, passing helicopters…they all bring him back.  It is not a celebration.  It’s a nightmare.

Ron’s ability to maintain a positive attitude about the war and his country becomes more and more shaken, and eventually destroyed.  Upon visiting his childhood girlfriend Donna (Sedgwick), he tries to act like they still have a future together, but it’s symbolically cut short when Donna steps up onto a curb, leaving Ron unable to follow in his chair.  “The war is SO wrong, Ronnie,” she tells him.  She doesn’t pick up the hurt in his eyes, but we do.  It’s bad enough to lose your body, but it’s even worse to have people tell you that you did it for nothing.

Anger and self pity finally takes him over.  He drinks, and fights with his parents.  He wants them to understand what it was like over there, but they cannot.  “What do you want, son?” his father asks in desperation.  “I want to be a man again,” Ron softly cries.

It is during a pilgrimage to Mexico that Ron finally begins to come to grips with the war in Vietnam.  He is surrounded by crippled veteran outcasts, all seeking refuge from the country that didn’t want them back, including Charlie (Dafoe), a man whose bitterness seems to have completely eroded from within the human being he once was.  Ron’s thinking begins to change.  He may have once wished he had died in the war, but now, he’s beginning to realize there may be a reason he was left alive.  But he has one stop to make first.

In one of the most beautifully crafted scenes in recent memory, Ron visits the family of the man he accidentally killed, and gives a heart rending confession.  “I was the one,” he sobs, over and over again.  “I was the one.”  Of course, it doesn’t make the family feel any better that their only son was killed by friendly fire…in fact, watching the young widow’s eyes slowly narrow with hatred is an unforgettable shot…but Ron needed the catharsis.  He had tried to tell the tale of what he had done before, but it fell on deaf ears.  Now he’s ready to lay down his guns and pick up his signs, and wage the battle on the home front.

When I first saw this movie back in 1989, I went with my best friend, who was born in Miami, and told me afterwards that he had vague recollection of the stormy veterans’ protest at the Republican National Convention there in 1972.  Watching it unfold on screen, it didn’t seem like a successful venture for Ron and his fellow vets, but it was just the beginning of a long fight that would be won one listener at a time.  He was thrown out of the convention in ’72, but four years later, he was a guest speaker for the Democrats at their convention.  How did it feel, they ask?  “Like I’ve finally come home,” he answers with a smile.

What an incredible journey—for Ron, and for us, the audience.  This film maintains a dramatic power for its duration, and by the time it ends, you will have shed tears more than once.  And not enough can be said about Tom Cruise’s Oscar worthy performance as Ron Kovic, as he skillfully leads us through the amazing journey that was his life.  It is a story of great loss and great triumph, of destruction and rebuilding, and stands as one of the best films of the last quarter century.

Video *

This DVD was one of Universal’s first offerings, so what I’m about to say has no reflection on their current state of disc production:  Born on the Fourth of July is one of the worst transfers I’ve seen.  The box lists it as a 1.85:1 ratio, but the movie is correctly framed at 2.35:1.  It’s not anamorphic, sadly, and one can only wonder what striking a brand new transfer especially for DVD might have done for this disc.  There is grain, grain, grain throughout, and virtually no instance of natural looking colors.  They’re either far too bright or far too flat.  Some of the Vietnam scenes are borderline unwatchable.  Theatrical viewings showed that these scenes were supposed to have a hot yellow tint, but on this disc, the yellow tones completely take over, making the images monochromatic and hard to distinguish. 

Audio **

The 5.1 soundtrack is OK, but not nearly as lively or as dynamic as I remember the theatrical presentation being (there is also a DTS version of the disc available).  There are some livelier moments for the surround channels during the battle scenes, and a few other moments where ambient effects come into play, but all in all, decidedly unimpressive.

Features *

Only talent files and production notes.  A shame, because the trailer was really good.

Summary:

I'm glad Universal is going back to the drawing board to create a new DVD of this film for us fans, keeping in mind the importance of the film.  With a few more features and a new anamorphic transfer, the disc could be so much better.  But in the meantime, this movie is great enough to warrant owning on disc however you can get it.  It’s a passionate, emotional story about the veterans of the Vietnam war, who survived a foreign front only to have to take up a different set of arms and fight again on their home front.  It is the true story of the eventual triumph of the human spirit over tragedy and despair, and how the courage of one man helped make a difference where it mattered the most.