By John H. Foote
Tom Cruise became an actor in Rain Man (1988) but he became a great actor as real life war veteran Ron Kovic in Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July, an adaptation of Kovic’s best seller, and his evolution from patriotic soldier to anti-war crusader. Cruise really is magnificent in this heavy-handed film, weighed down by the excesses director Stone heaps upon him, trying far too hard to make the great American war film.
Having nearly made the film in 1979 with Al Pacino, directed by William Friedkin, Stone has promised Ron Kovic he would make the film if he ever broke through, a promise he kept. I must confess, as fine as Tom Cruise is, I would have loved to have been in the rehearsals as Pacino found the character. Sadly it was not meant to be.
Watching it now, 31 years after its release, the rah rah macho over the top Norman Rockwell Americana patriotism is a bit stifling, and the early scenes, meant to be tinged with fifties and sixties nostalgia, are so obviously directed AT us, I could not wait for this young man to get to Vietnam, get out of this town and as far away from his mother as possible.
Painted the golden boy of the town, Ronnie plays war with his friends in the woods, is the best ball player on the Little League team, and the apple of his mother’s eye. Portrayed by Caroline Kava, the mother looks at Ronnie adoringly and says things like, “I had a dream you were speaking to crowds of people…and you were saying great things” as her eyes glisten with tears.
One might wonder while watching the film if Ronnie is an only child? None of the Kovic brood get near the attention their little soldier gets. I kid you not. You might wonder after Ron returns home from Vietnam where all these other kids came from?
Kovic buys into Vietnam and joins the marines right out of high school and so is in a faraway country fighting someone else’s war. In these sequences, in fact from this point on, Stone is in his element and one with Cruise for the rest of the film.
The war is nothing like Kovic thought it would be, it slowly tears his soul apart. They attack a village and, armed with the wrong information, kill women and children, Kovic forever haunted by the sound of a crying baby. While under attack he accidentally shoots and kills a member of his platoon, holding the man as he dies. When he confesses to his superior officer what he has done, the man ignores the confession, and orders Kovic back to war.
Shot in a firefight, left paralyzed from the waist down, Kovic fights a very different war back stateside where the vets are unappreciated, and living in the squalor of under funded, understaffed hospitals. Despite being told he will not walk again, Kovic punishes himself until he nearly dies trying. Accepting his fate is to be in a wheelchair the rest of his life, he returns home to his parents and small town, a hero. Just as he once watched veterans of the Second World War and Korea, he now rides in the parades through town celebrating the Fourth of July, the firecrackers making him wince as they did the soldiers he watched as a child.
He finds a lack of appreciation for his service, horrified that not even his brothers and sisters understand what he went through over there. Kovic begins to listen to people about the war, he reads ferociously, and begins to drink – a lot. Growing his beard and hair, he begins to rebel against his mother’s beliefs, challenging her strict Catholic upbringing, howling to her in the middle of the night in a powerful scene, “Thou shall not kill mom … thou shall not kill women and children” as he weeps in his wheelchair, a broken man. His father puts him to bed that night, reinserting the catheter into his limp penis, leaving Kovic weeping to his father, “Who is gonna love me Dad?”
Spurned by his teenage crush, Ron does not know where to turn. Tired of being pointed at in the street, angry at his family for not understanding, even mocking him, he seeks out other vets struggling with what happened over there.
Thrown out of the house he heads to Mexico, where the vets are treated with greater respect than they are in the United States and the cost of living is better. Kovic finds he can stretch his veterans pension much farther, drink as much as he wants and visit brothels, where the women are used to dealing with paraplegics. There he pays for sex with a kind prostitute, who cradles his head as he weeps at being with a woman for the first time. After that he is a regular.
While in Mexico Kovic begins to realize and understand the war is wrong, that more young men will die needlessly or return broken like him. He begins giving speeches, talking about what happened to him over there, and that America made a terrible mistake with their involvement. Haunted by the killing of the soldier he knows be shot, he eases his guilt by visiting the man’s family, meeting his parents and young widow, all who forgive him.
Critical Praise, Globes, Oscar
The film was well reviewed when it opened late 1989, and almost at once became a major contender for the Academy Awards. Cruise is brilliant as Kovic, especially in the scenes when he comes home forever in a wheelchair, angry, seething about what happened to him, with no where for that anger to be pointed. The actor throws his entire being into the role and greatly impressed critics who had written him off as a good-looking movie star. He won the Golden Globe as Best Actor, while the film won Best Picture (Drama), Stone won his second Globe as Best Director, and Kovic and Stone shared the screenplay award. A few weeks later Stone won his second Best Director prize from the DGA Awards, making he and the film the odds-on favourite to win the Academy Awards. Nominated for eight in all, trailing Driving Miss Daisy (1989) by one, Stone seemed confident his film would do very well. Indeed, he won his second Academy Award for Best Director, and the film won for Best Film Editing, but Cruise lost Best Actor to the extraordinary Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot (1989) which came as a shock. And then without the benefit of a Best Director nomination, Driving Miss Daisy took Best Picture, a complete shock.
Watching Born on the Fourth of July recently I was truly bothered by the corny opening 30 minutes, where Stone seems to be cramming Americana down our throats. Was Kovic an only child? He seems to be and the apple of his parents’ eye, as long as he was on the Rockwellian life they saw for him. Stone was never a subtle filmmaker, ever, and the early 30 minutes feel for all the world like a sentimental Frank Capra film. It very nearly takes some of the power away from the rest of the movie, but the force of the Cruise performance comes through.
The scenes in Mexico are outstanding with Willem Dafoe excellent as a paralyzed veteran living life through a tequila haze.
Caroline Kava is over wrought as mother Kovic, nearly hysterical at times. When she looks at 10-year old Ronnie, listening to President Kennedy speak, and says she dreamed of him saying great things, I groaned out loud. She might as well stand up and scream FORESHADOW … because that is what it is.
Thank God for the horrific hospital scenes in which Cruise finds his zone and digs in with an intense, miraculous performance.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.