Just when I am about to totally dismiss Tom Cruise as a product of his looks and a couple of decent action films I am reminded that given the right type of role this guy can muster a good acting performance. He did it in Tropic Thunder, Rain Man, Jerry Maguire, and Born on the Fourth of July. Born on the Fourth of July is the film where director Oliver Stone (JFL, Savages) took the axe he seemingly has against the American government and ground it and ground it well. He does not go off half cocked against the U.S. government, the Vietnam War and the mistreatment of the veterans that came back broken and injured men. In Stone’s tempered hands and Cruise’s nuanced and passionate performance the film doesn’t sink to the level of ranting, rather it becomes a strong human rights and anti-war statement.
As a young boy Ron Kovic grew up in Long Island, New York with a strong Catholic background and pride in his country. After a visit by a recruiter to his high school, a young, fit and patriotic young man does what he sees to be the only logical choice – he enlists in the Marines.
On his second tour through Vietnam in 1968 during the brutal war, the now Sargeant Kovic (Tom Cruise) is on a patrol with his men and they mistake a group of citizens as the enemy. A slaughter ensues. During the chaotic retreat Kovic accidentally shoots one of his own men. The young soldier named Wilson (Michael Compotaro) unfortunately dies. This accidentally shooting and death ways heavily on Kovic, who tries to talk to a superior about it, but is basically brushed off.
Later while on another patrol Kovic is gravely injured. The bullet travels through his body and ends up destroying his spine. He is rescued from the field by fellow Marines. Kovic is paralyzed from the waist down and spends some time recovering at the Bronx Veterans Administration Hospital. The hospital’s conditions are horrible, to say the least, and the doctors do not seem very sympathetic to the patients’ conditions. Kovic even injures himself further when trying desperately to walk again.
Back home and is in a wheelchair. He is a changed man due to his injury and the mistreatment he received at the hospital. His friends and family cannot tolerate his behaviour. Kovic believes that his government has forgotten about the Vietnam veterans. He begins to participate in anti-government rallies. The divide widens between Kovic and his mother and brother, Tommy (Josh Evans – The Doors), who is now anti-war. Besides his physical injuries, Kovic is now suffering psychologically. He begins to drink heavily.
After a trip to Mexico and a visit with the widow and parents of Wilson, Kovic continues to fight for the right of American veterans.
This is an important story about the Vietnam War. We have all seen the Vietnam films that deal with soldiers during the war, but very few have touched upon how the soldiers readjust to civilian life after coming back home. It is an important issue and a sadly neglected one. We create these men who go off. witness or are subject to incredible violence and horror then try to sweep them under the rug when then come home either psychologically or physically damaged. They are making great sacrifices and this is how we thank them. Sad.
For Oliver Stone, this film is one of his finest moments as a director. He is able to get off his soap box and construct a film that is powerful without being overly one sided. This era was a time that American eyes began to be opened about their government and that they were not always doing what was right for the people. The American people began rebel against their own government for insisting that they continuing to fight in a war which was obviously not winnable. And at the high price of the loss of many young American men. Stone is not concerned about the horrors of war per se, but rather the horrors that face the men that come back. He does not aim to portray Kovic as a saintly man who was wronged, rather it is much more effective because he allows him to be an “average” man with flaws and faults.
Matching Stone’s deft touch was his leading man, Tom Cruise. Cruise does a marvellous job portraying a man who is slipping into the depths of despair and becoming disillusioned towards the country he loved so much. We see the effect that it has on him and with Cruise’s portrayal, Kovic’s torment becomes palpable. He invites the viewer in to live through the torment right alongside the character. Cruise totally commits to the role and does the man he portrays justice. In doing so he demonstrates a range I did not believe he possessed.
- From the NBC News Archives – Backstory: Born on the Fourth of July
- Feature Commentary with Director Oliver Stone
- 100 Years of Universal: Academy Award® Winners
- 100 Years of Universal: The ’80s