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Overall Rating

Worth A Look: 31.03%
Average: 8.62%
Pretty Bad: 13.79%
Total Crap: 8.62%

3 reviews, 40 user ratings

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Born on the Fourth of July
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by Jack Sommersby

"Jejune 'July'"
2 stars

There are those who say the Academy copped out by awarding the 1989 Best Picture Oscar to "Driving Miss Daisy" over Stone's film. Nonsense, Bruce Beresford's mini-classic was quite clearly the better cinematic offering.

It's a shame that Born on the Fourth of July is more Oliver Stone's July than Ron Kovic's July even though Kovic, whose searing autobiographical book the film is based upon, co-wrote the screenplay with Stone. Where the book was vitriol and penetrating and unforgettable, the film is vague and overstated and underwhelming -- a cinematic calamity of almost biblical proportions in its unctuous, undying quest to shape Kovic as nothing short of the ultimate Christ figure. It's the kind of motion picture that will greatly appeal to ultra-left-wing reactionaries who don't require the slightest semblances of gravitas in a dramatic presentation just so long as the overall view closely coincides with their own; the mere fact that the film exists is reason enough to justify its existence, even if it bears not an iota of relation to anything coherent and intelligently thought out. Which would seem impossible given Kovic's harrowing book in its galvanizing account of how his clean-cut, all-American, Catholic-raised self eagerly volunteered for service in Vietnam out of sheer patriotic duty, witnessed and unknowingly partook in gruesome civilian casualties swept under the rug by his superiors, mistakenly killed a fellow solider during a frenzied gun battle (also covered up by his superiors), had his spine severed by an enemy bullet that wound up paralyzing him from the mid-chest down, was subjected to horrendous conditions in a dirty, rat-infested, poorly-funded VA hospital, and encountered indifference after returning home to his Long Island town of Massapequa. But Stone, whose outstanding Wall Street was as underrated as his trite Platoon was overrated, can't seem to follow through on anything in particular: he's so obsessed and determined at painting an all-encompassing allegorical condemnation of the ruination of America because of the war that he forgets to nail down basic story points and tell an actual story. Everything's accentuated to the point of near-hysteria, which makes the movie frustratingly amorphous and overbearing all at the same time -- it refuses to touch ground and engage us on the simplest responsive level. And it's not negligible just in its storytelling but in its characterization, as well -- for a two-and-a-half-hour film, Kovic remains no more than two-dimensional to us: Stone mistakenly thinks putting a character though identifiable situations is the same thing as etching an identifiable character in the process, almost as if by default. What's worse, Kovic comes off in a very unflattering light, but not in a truthful, unsparing way. In Stone's excellent Salvador, he was willing to make its flawed gonzo-journalist protagonist both a hero and a scuzzbucket: James Woods's Richard Boyle tried redeeming himself in a church confessional just to wind up trying to bargain with the priest in allowing him to indulge in his alcohol-consuming, pot-smoking habits once in a while. In July, Stone stacks the deck by rendering Kovic as a pathetic whiner who is in no way responsible for any of his decisions that got him where he is; he's far too busy blaming everyone else rather than honestly introspecting, and as a result he's very hard to take.

The way Stone tells it, Kovic was predestined to become an anti-war activist -- like the Christopher Walken psychic character in The Dead Zone, Kovic had to endure endless trials and tribulations, sacrificing his youth and body, to attain this all-important status, as if the fate of the world hinged upon it. This may seem like an exaggeration, but Stone employs zenith-level exaggerations throughout, refusing to abide by the rudiments of true narrative; opting for sweeping spectacle over complexity and nuance, he goes for Big Moments, like a shameless TV-movie exploiting a cancer-stricken hero for all his maudlin worth. As a boy, Kovic is so fresh-faced his skin would be ideal for a Noxzema commercial, and so wide-eyed-innocent a dirty thought would bounce off him like bullets off Superman; when at a town parade, he's agog over the wounded veteran soldiers passing by in their wheelchairs, and, of course, he wants to be as courageous as them some day. Even as a high-school senior, he's still as morally wholesome: he's still tongue-tied around girls even though his kicked-in hormones have him salivating over Playboy magazines with his friends; and when a Marine recruiter comes to Kovic's school and gives a recruitment speech, the camera zooms in on Kovic, who's, again, wide-eyed beyond belief and lunar-moon beaming as if the recruiter were a spectral supreme being. Wanting to prove himself both a true man and true patriot, Kovic is keen to enlist and see front-line action in Vietnam before "all the good fighting" is over; he doesn't contemplate what exactly he'd be fighting for except for a vague idea of communist aggression -- he just uses it as a springboard so he can jump into battle like he's seen John Wayne do in the movies. His ultra-conservative mother backs his decision, but his more cautious father has his doubts, to which Kovic tells him he's willing to travel thirteen-thousand miles and die over there if necessary. The real Kovic wasn't too far from this in context, but the manner in which he's presented is too goody-goody and filled with plasticity; the film leapfrogs too much, leaving us little wiggle room to get anything other than a cursory examination of Kovic. In his quest to steadfastly get across a theme in the broadest terms, Stone doesn't bother filling in any blanks; he's too concerned with covering a lot of ground, to make an epic with a capital-E to end all epics. As a result, some viable possibilities slip right through his fingers -- most of which were undoubtedly very detectable but casually disregarded because they would've delved into areas that would require development, and contradict Stone's locked-in vision of Kovic as a person above question. When after a year or so after returning home, drunken and bitter over his useless legs and limp penis, his inability to hold a regular job and father children and have sexual intercourse, Kovic rails against the injustice of it all; and if the film had followed through on this, pointing out that Kovic really wasn't willing to sacrifice everything for the war -- that his obsession with war was more about abstraction than actualization -- it could've been as potent as the ravaged Kovic wish he could again be some day. (When a weeping Kovic tells his father he wants "to be a man again," we know he means physically, but Stone doesn't allow the thought into Kovic's head that it was his simplistic view of a man, with machismo riding over common sense, that played a part in getting him into his predicament in the first place.)

Stone tries laying the majority of the blame on the United States: it was the country that lied to Kovic rather than Kovic having deluded himself into thinking war was like the harmless war games he and his young friends engaged in in the woods with toy guns and combat helmets. But it comes across half-assed and makes the film murky because we haven't seen anything that's particularly indicative of this. While the underlying rationale for the war may have been futile, the context of it isn't even given much in the way of lip service in the film; the gist of what the recruiter tells Kovic and his schoolmates is that there's nothing prouder than a United States Marine, which may be a load of bollocks but isn't particularly damning or deceivingly manipulative. And during a drunken rant at home, after having returned late at night from a bar from embarrassing himself by falling out of his wheelchair on the dance floor, Kovic screamingly lets loose at his mother, accusing her of making him to go to Vietnam when, again from what's been presented to us, this simply isn't backed up by the previous passages -- she supported his decision to go, but that's it. (This is also the scene where Kovic rails against his "dead penis," but instead of seriously dealing with it, Stone breezes right over it by trying to make us laugh at Kovic screaming "Penis!" so loud it wakes up practically the whole neighborhood. Were homes this non-soundproof back in the day?) To up the ante, the mother has been turned into a one-dimensional martinet who the audience has been geared to turn their noses up at with her staunch religiosity and zero tolerance for profanity. Yes, Stone has more or less refrained from making a genuine political statement pertaining to the war, and I guess some will chalk this up as respectful in that Kovic is the story here as opposed to Stone's political views, but with Stone's insistent "the country lied to Kovic" spiel without fleshing this out, it leaves the film without a core -- it's like a jumbo jet on autopilot forever circling the runway. This isn't to say Stone doesn't score some points. The best section, and the only one with any real power, is the middle one where Kovic languishes in filth and neglect in the VA hospital in the Bronx. Woefully understaffed, the place is something right out of a horror movie, which, according to vets and documented fact, wasn't too far from the truth. The conditions are deplorable, and the underpaid workers, to keep the patients complacent and docile, try doping them to the gills on tranquilizers or looking the other way while they shoot up on illegal drugs. These scenes resonant with truth, and Stone lays off the grandiose and pulls back on the attention-getting camerawork and lets the unpleasantness of it all settle in -- it's as if gout were gradually seeping into our veins. It's also here that Kovic, not to be licked by what he can't come to terms with is a permanent disability, pushes himself to physical extremes to get around by steel crutches, only to injure himself and risk losing a broken leg to a malfunctioning fluid-draining machine that the hospital only has one of. (Curiously, Kovic's parents never come to see him in the hospital even though it's not that far away. In the book, they did. Again, Stone indulges in selective memory to artificially stack the deck against Kovic. And was Kovic so desperate to finally get his story to the silver screen that he was willing to overlook this stuff?)

Stone also manages to make the Kent University-protest sequence something frightening and genuine, where campus police viciously assault the hippie students while non-violently protesting. Kovic, present at the demonstration because he's traveled to the school to see his longtime dream girl from childhood (a subplot that's underdeveloped), is himself assaulted in the process. In the book, Kovic was clear in detailing how the VA hospital and the Kent State incidents shook his view of the government and helped him get a new perspective. In the film, however, right after Kent State we forward to Kovic some months later in a bar badmouthing the war, but it's generalized without any real context or perspective -- there isn't a through-line connecting what Ron goes through back home and his anti-Vietnam War attitude and rants thereafter. If the cinematic Kovic had come back from the war uninjured and full-bodied, would he have turned against the war? We've no idea, though from what we get from the film, the answer would very likely be no, which is probably why Stone dodges this, too. It's always been easy to understand some Vietnam veterans sticking to their guns that it was worth it, because for those in doubt it's much easier to go on believing their sacrifices were for something justifiable than to contemplate that they weren't. And this comes through in the VA hospital scenes, and an early postwar domestic one where Kovic argues with his brother who believes the war is wrong, but even then Stone doesn't really follow through with it -- the brothers don't get into any specifics; and you can't help but read the scene as Stone wants you to: that only those who served over there have the right to criticize it (despite the fact that our soldiers overseas are always supposedly fighting for our freedoms -- which was certainly not the case with the Vietnam War -- that some think shouldn't be exercised if the view is in opposition to a military mission or war). And Stone pulls the same stunt in the very next scene where Kovic pays a visit to the fast-food restaurant his childhood friend, who advised Kovic not to enlist, has opened and is prospering from. He, too, criticizes the war, and when Kovic objects and his friend reminds him that it was Kovic who bought into the pseudo-reasoning behind the war, we get a reaction shot of an upset Kovic, and then the scene just ends. Just about everything in Born on the Fourth of July is shorthanded and incongruent, which is all the more disappointing in that someone who hasn't read Kovic's book will likely assume these negatives are inherent in the source material, which they aren't. Kovic didn't just provide a blueprint but more than enough substance that didn't have to be jumbled around and jettisoned to make a workable dramatic presentation; far too often, you're left angry at Stone for continually not getting things right that even a hack director would instinctively be wise to. How are we supposed to understand and champion someone who became an anti-Vietnam War activist if the process that got him to that point isn't detailed and filled in, especially in an epic? Not only does Kovic's book gain absolutely nothing from being filmed, it's made a casualty by Stone's vague treatment. (A documentary of Kovic wouldn't have been seen by most mainstream audiences, but at least, sans a big box-office take, it at least would've had integrity.)

It's hard to discern just which is the film's lowest point because there are a good many to choose from. A choice candidate is during one of the later sections, where Kovic, thrown out of his family home (though why he chose to stay there as long as he did is a mystery since he's bringing in a considerable seventeen-hundred-dollar monthly disability check; in real life, Kovic moved out shortly after returning from the war, got an apartment, and even attended college for a while), goes away to a beachside village in Mexico where many wheelchair vets have gone to get away from things, and, after losing his metaphysical virginity with a prostitute, has a laughable fight with another vet who, for no believable reason, doubts Kovic has seen the same horrors he did in Vietnam, resulting in the two of them left in the middle of nowhere on the sands, emotionally and dramatically spent. Probably, though, it's the rock-bottom one where Kovic travels to a small Georgia town to confess to the family of the soldier he killed with "friendly fire" his misdeed. In real life, this didn't happen, which makes sense in that informing the parents and widow wouldn't exactly lessen their grief -- in fact, it's safe to say it would worsen it: they'd wonder for the rest of their lives if he'd have returned home alive otherwise. Obviously, Stone fabricated it to spew shameless emotionality yet again, and to give Tom Cruise, who plays Kovic, one of those going-for-the-Oscar scenes that no actor could resist (or at least one who wouldn't care if it were as chock-full of bathetic bathos as this). As for Cruise, who Stone certainly demanded a lot of given that he's in every single scene, he gets through the film passably enough, but not necessarily with honors. He's serviceable as a strictly genre actor (he had some impressive edge as the son-of-a-bitch brother to Dustin Hoffman's idiot savant in the otherwise-deplorable Rain Man the year before), but when called upon to really stretch himself in a multi-dimensional role (not that the role of Kovic is that demanding in the way he's been inconsistently written) he just doesn't have the resources and imagination to fill in corners and shade feelings; everything he does here is on the surface, and while it's certainly an honorable try, it's mostly the wheelchair and aging make-up that do most of the work. Any number of actors could've done just as well; and several others could have done way better. (With a lot less screen time in a supporting role as a cynical, suffering-from-Agent-Orange vet in the underrated In Country that came out the same year, Bruce Willis, with the same Fu Manchu mustache and receding hairline that Cruise sports here, gave a much more complex, persuasive performance. He made lines like, "I'm just hanging on here with every bit of strength I've got; Christ, it exhausts me" come from deep inside and hurt.) In fact, the only performances that have any weight are Willem Dafoe's as Charlie, the vet who befriends Kovic and later gets in that fight with; Jerry Levine's as Stevie, Kovic's alert restaurant-owner friend who calls him out on his naivety when Kovic knocks him for not having served in the war; and Rocky Carroll's as Willie, the only VA-hospital orderly who lends Kovic a sympathetic ear.

As is usually the case with an Oliver Stone film, the technical contributions are first-rate. Stone's usual cinematographer Robert Richardson gives the different sections their own distinctive look, ranging from soft, diffused primary colors during the nostalgic early ones in the 1950s, heightened sepia-toned ones during the Vietnam eipisodes (where Platoon took place mostly in the dense jungle, the firefights here take place in the open where the blinding sun does an unnerving job of pinpointing the soldiers' whereabouts and accentuating their vulnerability), harsh secondary colors in the VA hospital that seem to be sucking in any hints of hope like a cosmic black hole, and unfussy, documentary-like ones during the later sections. The razor-sharp editing by David Brenner and Joe Hutshing is ahead of us by a crucial second or two. The ace sound recording by Bill Abbott is multi-leveled and engulfs us with you-are-there vitality. Judy Ruskin's costumes and Bruno Rubeo's production design are spot-on without overindulging; they perfectly evoke the different eras but never call undue attention. (The only minus is the elephantine score by John Williams, who could get away with this kind of solipsistic swelling of the music chords in Steven Spielberg's wondrous fantasies but is too overscaled to mesh with the gritty subject matter, though this is no doubt exactly what Stone was after. It's the very definition of "lyrical lush.") But they're all at the service of an embarrassment of a film by a megalomaniacal director stuffed to the gills with his own self-importance who's always putting the squeeze on us, hammering obvious points home (as one critic noted, Stone underlines everything twice), and leaving little aesthetic distance for the audience to get their own reading on things. Born on the Fourth of July has no more girth or depth than Platoon, which was also simplistic and dramatically muddled; and it pales in comparison with Brian De Palma's Casualties of War, which asked important moral questions and tactfully and maturely thrust us into psychological complexities that weren't clear-cut and really resonated (it was a human drama that wisely remained small-scale). You take nothing away from the film except the distasteful impression that Stone was more concerned with using Kovic's story as an excuse to preach his own convictions; you can picture him going through Kovic's book, red-penciling out most of the small stuff, and using only what he could employ as grand spectacle. Right when Stone is on the verge of something observant, he cuts away and goes on to something else, and then does the same thing enough times so you're brought up short over his refusal to deal with the issues. It's the kind of juvenile rabble-rousing a high-school pep rally showers on the star quarterback before the big game -- all ballistic, bruising shouts that haven't any lasting power. Stone's in Kovic's corner every step of the way; he's awed by him; but in his deep-seated hero worship, along the way he lost the objectivity necessary to ratchet things down and tell a simple story about a simple man who went through extraordinary circumstances. Kovic is placed on such a high plateau from the get-go that he never comes down to our level. He's more poster boy than tragic figure, more a concept than a character, and that's an unforgivable atrocity that wounds the real, inspirational Ron Kovic more than that fateful bullet.

I'll take Stone's 1981 horror movie "The Hand" over "July" any 'ol day of the week, thank you very much.

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originally posted: 09/04/11 23:58:24
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User Comments

9/13/17 morris campbell impressive but depressing 4 stars
5/06/13 Tammy This movie is awesome and Tom Cruise is the best actor. 5 stars
8/24/12 roscoe good, but is patch work. cuts from one part of his life to the next without connecting 4 stars
9/27/11 sake02mo love that movie 5 stars
7/25/11 Quigley One of Cruise's greatest roles. He is a great actor and this film will always be a reminder 5 stars
10/23/10 Stormy Rockweather PENIS! PENIS! PENIS! 4 stars
5/02/10 Amy Green Why can't Tom Cruise do more movies as good as this one? Plus, love Edie Brickell's song. 4 stars
3/10/10 Richard Brandt Like most patriotic dreams, left blown up on some far-flung battlefield 5 stars
1/25/10 Chad Dillon Cooper Great film about Vietnam. True story . 5 stars
8/21/09 Jeff Wilder Like Platoon very effective. But difficult to watch more than once. 4 stars
5/04/08 mr.mike Held my interest till the last half hour 4 stars
9/25/07 mark one great film that is very important because it tells the truth 5 stars
11/14/06 action movie fan left wing propaganda but an interesting true story that moved--much better than platton or 4 stars
5/16/06 bmac solid. not good but solid 3 stars
11/08/05 noops this is the truth of vietnam war 4 stars
8/06/05 Richard Simmons anti-american POS... 1 stars
11/02/04 J bird awsome war film to follow stones "platoon" 5 stars
5/15/04 cynthia suxs..its totalli crap..dun make sense, camera kept moving, couln't see a shit 1 stars
11/29/03 Jaron background colors are a little confusing, but still a very good film!! 4 stars
1/23/03 Pinkline Jones Born on the 4th July - Who Cares! Steffi born 14 June 69 1 stars
1/13/03 Jack Sommersby Overblown, overstated, and just plain overbearing. 1 stars
7/27/02 I Can't Swim His wig aside, Tom's best effort. He creates a person, not a type. Dafoe good too 5 stars
7/04/02 Charles Tatum The world according to Oliver Stone 3 stars
3/12/02 KMG Suck my titties.... 3 stars
8/09/01 E-Funk Intriguing, important film about the horrors of post-vietnam life. Oliver Stone delivers. 5 stars
6/30/01 Cynthia Perna I felt like I was wading through a sewer. You couldn't pay me to watch this film again. 2 stars
4/01/01 Jesse L more heavy handed cliches from oliver stone... 1 stars
2/17/01 jk penis penis penis penis !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! 5 stars
2/04/01 homer simpson it teaches the young folks about how the world was during the 1970's 4 stars
1/01/01 Msitrab Oliver Stone is a genious 5 stars
11/28/00 Cristopher Revilla a great movie, one of stones best, (cept for that sex scene) 5 stars
11/04/00 viking an over long glorification of self-pity. 3 stars
10/12/00 Bruce Another Oliver Stone masterpiece 5 stars
10/05/00 The REAL Game 3:16 * * * * (out of * * * *) Brilliant Movie; I Rarely Well Up in Tears on Movies, this I did. 5 stars
9/09/00 Elvisfan Tom is great but all Oliver Stones movies feature the LOUSIEST wigs!! 5 stars
3/25/00 Richard Wright A biopic that keeps you watching, but a bit less melodrama would have gone a long way. 3 stars
2/13/00 Greek1111111 The impact is viscerally emotional 5 stars
7/04/99 J-Dogg WHAT? Stone's films are all magnificent (cept "Nixon"). I hated the ending though. 4 stars
3/25/99 James Coffey One of Oliver Stone's worst movies 2 stars
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  20-Dec-1989 (R)
  DVD: 19-Oct-2004


  02-Feb-1990 (M)

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