BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY (Oliver Stone, 1989)

The middle part of Oliver Stone’s Vietnam trilogy (in between Platoon, 1986, and Heaven & Earth, 1993), Born on the Fourth of July is based on Ron Kovic’s autobiographical book. Stone and Kovic co-wrote the script and fraternized. This ensured an intellectually dishonest and artistically disastrous result. Kovic hovered over the production as had George M. Cohan in the case of Yankee Doodle Dandy (Michael Curtiz, 1942). It never seems to have occurred to Stone that there is something intrinsically wrong with his having fraternized with the very person whose autobiography he was supposed to be analyzing. Stone’s lack of integrity runs that deep.
     The more’s the pity, because an honest, searching look at Kovic’s self-serving rationalizations would have immensely strengthened Stone’s critique of the U.S. government, whose lies paved the way for the nation’s increasing involvement in Vietnam. By flattering Kovic (by indicating, for example, his growth over time), Stone has inevitably shifted the focus of his film from the U.S. government in relation to the Vietnam War to Kovic himself, raising frustrating questions as to just what really was his artistic intent.
     The best parts of the film correspond to Kovic’s boyhood and adolescence in Massapequa, New York, and Vietnam. The cut from the high school prom, to which U.S. Marine recruit Kovic has run through the rain to have one dance with the girl he adores (Kyra Sedgwick—as usual, a bit of heaven on earth), to combat in Vietnam, where Kovic leads a squad of American invaders, intruders in a foreign civil war, is powerful, however derivative it is from Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978). The abortion of the prom’s “Moon River” on the soundtrack, where it is replaced by artillery fire and human chaos, is strong stuff. Robert Richardson’s hazily gorgeous color cinematography contributes mightily to a discombobulating atmosphere that helps explain the massacre of peasant innocents, the leaving to die of a surviving crying infant, and Kovic’s (possible) friendly fire against a comrade, killing him. So far so good.
     But for a single sequence, the remainder of the film is bug-eyed, foul-mouthed melodrama, replete with paralyzed, castrated Kovic’s whining and self-pity and tirades against his family, and a rock-bottom sojourn in a Mexican whorehouse from which we are to understand a new and better Kovic arose. But for one sequence, the rest of Stone’s silly, protracted film, with its senseless and erratic camera movement, is trash.
     One example of this seemingly endless string of trash follows. Local hero Kovic is giving an outdoor public speech testifying to the glorious nature of America’s murderous mission in Vietnam. Just as the Vietnam War had earlier interrupted “Moon River,” now Kovic’s memories of his own participation in that war interrupt his speech. Mutedly, the left-behind baby’s cries invade the soundtrack. But Stone, the old devil/incompetent, cannot leave well enough alone. The volume of those cries intensifies; loud, too, are the sounds of helicopters. A potentially fine scene ends in the rubble and rubbish of clichéd aural expressionism, overdrive and overkill. It is at this cheap, strenuous level that the film proceeds.
     I noted there is a single exception—a sequence where the film unexpectedly reclaims a measure of artistry, intelligence and restraint. This occurs when Kovic visits the family of the Marine he may have shot and killed, Private First Class Wilson—Wilson’s parents, Wilson’s widow and baby. Kovic makes a full disclosure, contextualizing it with a condensed account of the confusion of that day. This is a moving passage—although I would have left out the baby, even if this meant departing from the actual circumstance, to avoid the hellish moral arithmetic of having an alive white American baby excuse the fate of the crying “gook” baby. But, of course, the third part of Stone’s Vietnam trilogy would help set, symbolically, even that right.
     Tom Cruise plays the grown Kovic. (Increasingly he is made to look like Kovic as we remember Kovic.) He is exquisitely emotional in the Wilson-home passage, and Stone helped him in the early scenes to modulate his personality. Otherwise Cruise is dreadful—fatuous, fraudulent, cold, shrill. For the most part, the boy struggles mightily to keep his voice within a masculine range, and the effort distracts him from attempting anything else. It is extremely difficult to ward off a case of the giggles when Cruise, fancying himself an actor, indulges in his farcical crybaby antics.
     John Williams’s syrupy music perhaps drew this prescient remark from Cruise: “You complete me.”

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