Thursday 29 March 2012

Movie Review: Born On The Fourth Of July (1989)

The story of Vietnam war veteran turned peace activist Ron Kovic, Born On The Fourth Of July asks all the right questions about a sordid conflict and the reasons for war. Director Oliver Stone carves a compelling human drama that encapsulates the struggle of a nation to understand its role in the world.

Coming of age in the 1960s, Kovic (Tom Cruise) was captivated by President Kennedy's call for youth to serve their country, and entranced by the recruitment Marines (including Tom Berenger in a one-scene role) who swung by his High School in Massapequa, New York. Idealistic and patriotic, Kovic buys the fable about the need to stop the communist threat and enlists at the earliest opportunity.

By 1967 Kovic is on his second tour of duty in Vietnam, where he witnesses US troops slaughtering innocent villagers, and in a chaotic gunfight, he inadvertently kills a fellow marine. Caught in a fire fight on open ground, Kovic is shot through the spine and heroically saved by a fellow soldier under fire. He endures a harrowing recuperation at a filthy veteran's hospital before returning home, permanently paralysed from the waist down.

Emotionally traumatized, Kovic is still initially loudly supportive of the war, and spends time feeling sorry for himself in Mexico, where he meets other disabled veterans including the ornery Charlie (Willem Dafoe). But gradually, and with help from childhood sweetheart Donna (Kyra Sedgwick), the anti-war sentiment begins to resonate, and he embarks on a remarkable transformation into an impassioned leader of the anti-war protest movement.

Tom Cruise gives one of his most accomplished performances as Ron Kovic, carrying the film single-handedly and deservedly earning an Academy Award nomination. From the bright-eyed, short-haired teenager eager to be among the first wave of marines landing on the shores of Vietnam to the jaded, damaged, depressed, angry, long-haired, guilt-stricken and wheelchair-bound anti-war protester, Cruise captures Kovic's evolution and what it means to survive the war but lose part of the body and all of the innocence.

Oliver Stone co-wrote the screenplay with Kovic, and they take their time with the story, Born On The Fourth Of July dragging a bit at 145 minutes. The hospital and Mexico passages overstay their welcome well after making their point, and both could have benefited from sharper editing. Otherwise, Stone is respectful of the strength of the material, and along with cinematographer Robert Richardson paints some beautiful tableaux, both in idyllic Massapequa and the tragedy-laden Vietnamese landscape.

While Kovic's journey is certainly epic, Born On The Fourth Of July as a movie suffers from the lack of any other major counterweight characters. Berenger and Dafoe add little other than curiosity by reuniting with their Platoon director. Sedgwick is game but has the slightest of roles, while the likes of Frank Whaley as Kovic's friend and Raymond J. Barry as Mr. Kovic drift in and out of the story leaving only local impressions.

As much as Born On The Fourth Of July is the story of one man, it is also a reflection of a country undergoing a remarkable transformation in one decade. From a position of invincibility to a humiliating defeat, and from blind patriotism to more thoughtful questioning of foreign policy, Ron Kovic holds up a mirror to the United States, and the view is one of both horror and hope.

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