Oliver Stone may be traveling down the long slope to mediocrity -- W. was a surprising success, but even then only if your expectations have been worn down by such work as Alexander -- but there was a time when he was the most promising writer-director America had to offer. By the time Born on the Fourth of July was released in December 1989, he'd won an Oscar for his writing (Midnight Express) and damn near cleaned up with Platoon, his masterful depiction of his service in Vietnam. But Stone wasn't done with 'Nam, not by a long shot. Born on the Fourth of July, the second of three films that overtly concern the war, follows the war home, chronicling the traumatic re-adjustment of our wounded veterans.
As Stone establishes in the first half hour, Ron Kovic was the sort of young man that would make any parents proud and only seemed to confirm the American ideal of the '50s and '60s. Athletic, intelligent and a devout patriot, Ronnie wants nothing more than to serve his country like his father did in WWII. When Marine recruiters come to school and speak proudly of being the first called into an engagement, Kovic is inspired. The Marines say the war won't last long, he breathlessly informs his friends, "so if we don't sign up soon, we'll miss it." His mother is thrilled when he comes home and announces he's dropping out to enlist, believing her son to be doing God's work, but the veteran father is concerned.
Ronnie's tour of duty only occupies about 12 minutes of screen time, but Stone of course knows how to make them count. In the middle of a NVA ambush, Ronnie inadvertently shoots a fellow Marine; when he tries to confess to his XO, his superior officer simply brushes him off and assures the boy it's not his fault. In another skirmish, his platoon is surrounded, and Kovic is hit.
The attack sends him to a horrific VA hospital overrun with rats, drug use and uncaring doctors. I've heard that it's best to treat wounded soldiers as if they're still on the front lines and not to pamper them, but these men are treated with callous indifference. Ronnie, once a star athlete, must now hear the news that he's paralyzed from the mid-chest down and will never walk again.
So, he returns home, ashamed. At first, he continues to support the war on the basis of his loyalty to his country. He clashes with his younger brother Tommy (Josh Evans), now an anti-war activist, and must now face a once-proud mother who cannot bear the shame of having a disabled son. Slowly, Ron comes undone, disillusioned with the war and the military that doesn't care for him or anyone else maimed in Vietnam.
Tom Cruise may be known -- in acting terms, at least -- for his looks and his smile, but I maintain that he's a criminally underrated actor. His work in Jerry Maguire, Magnolia, A Few Good Men and a number of other films ranges from quite good to excellent, but nothing can compare to his performance as Kovic. His transitions from fresh-faced youth to terrified, confused soldier to broken vet to a figurehead of the anti-war movement never miss a beat, never feel rushed and never fail to convince. The only time you can even identify him as Tom Cruise the megastar is in the first hour when he's that handsome, innocent youth and the idealistic soldier; when he returns, he's as much a changed man as Kovic was. It's telling that the real Kovic gave Cruise his Bronze Star at the end of filming.
Through Kovic we see how Vietnam forever destroyed that postwar vision of the purity of the American family. Timmy represents those who rebelled against family and friends to protest the government, while Ron shows us how even those who fit the bill of that ideal were corrupted by the senseless conflict. You forget what a naïve kid Ron really is, until he loses his virginity to a prostitute. As he tearfully screams to his mother before leaving home, he lost the use of his penis before he "even learned how to use it." For this All-American to be reduced to awkward sex with a prostitute, which he misconstrues for true love, sheds harsh light on how he and many others who served and were wounded or killed had their futures ripped from them.
Stone's never been one for subtlety, and Born on the Fourth of July suffers at time from obvious dialogue when moments like his time with the prostitute conveys more than pithy statements. But he also knows how maintain your attention, either through the actions on-screen or the masterful way that he captures them. What makes Stone's early films so captivating is how he just never let up, hitting us with a barrage of images so quickly you didn't realize how revolutionary so many of his techniques were until the film ended and you could actually take a breath. His script conveys the outrage he feels over the mishandling of our veterans, a problem that exists to this day, but there are also flashes of pitch-black humor: while relaxing in a sort of disabled vet's paradise in Mexico, he gets into an argument with another wheelchair-bound veteran (Willem Dafoe) over whether they killed babies in 'Nam.
Stone won his second Best Director Oscar for the film, and it is richly deserved. Born on the Fourth of July, heavy-handed as it can be in spots, is one of his enduring masterpieces alongside Platoon and JFK. Cruise's performance is the finest of his career, yet we must not forget superb supporting turns from Kyra Sedgwick as Ron's high school sweetie turned college demonstrator, Dafoe's initially calm and genial Charlie and Raymond J. Barry as Ron's concerned, loving father. This is the second film from 1989 I've watched about the Vietnam War, and it's by far the best. I have a long way to go, but I'll be surprised if I find many films from the year I enjoy as much or more than this.