Stone's Movie not Kovic's Story
Having been raised as a patriot, attending the veterans parades with the family and the rest of the town who celebrate what they did for their country, it was obvious that when the day came Ron Kovic (Tom Cruise) would sign up to become a Marine and represent his country in battle. But having climbed the ranks and returned for a 2nd tour of Vietnam Ron suffers a life changing injury which leaves him wheel chair bound. Still a patriot when he returns home he begins to feel differently thanks to the way he is treated and turns from pro-war to anti-war who with actual war experience became a more credible voice than those who never served.
I remember going to watch "Born on the Fourth of July" in 1990 when it was released in the UK and admittedly I was a few months under age at the time to be watching an 18. But that is an important point because as a British teen watching "Born on the Fourth of July" it didn't have the right impact on me; in fact I found it a slog of a movie quite simply because I was not ready for a Tom Cruise movie this heavy. It wasn't till I hit my mid 30s that I re-watched "Born on the Fourth of July" and was able to appreciate it for what it is and I say this for those who are either teens now considering watching it or only saw it when they were teens and found it hard work as it is a movie which gets better when you age.
Having said all that I still have a big problem with "Born on the Fourth of July" and that is because this is the story of Ron Kovic but Oliver Stone struggles to tell his story and ends up rushing things during the latter parts of the movie. What Stone does instead is use Kovic's story to tell his own 4 part story with a motive of taking us through youthful patriotism, the brutality of war, the real aftermath of war and then Kovic's conversion from pro-war to anti-war. Part 2 and 3 are well handled as we go from one brutality to another as we witness the war and then Kovic's determination to rehab even in the filth of a Boston hospital where the floor is covered with urine and rats whilst the staff shoot up in closets. Part 4 is where Stone struggles and seems unable to give Kovic's story the depth which it deserves when he has become anti-war.
But it is the first part of "Born on the Fourth of July" which always impresses me as we see the young Ron Kovic and his childhood friends not only playing at being soldiers, running through the woods but also attending the town parades where veterans from previous wars take part in the procession. From the slight hazy focus of the camera to the atmosphere it is like being transported back in time, not only as in being at a parade but being at a Capra-esque parade as it is awash in the glow of movie patriotism. But then in the midst of this as we watch one vet being wheeled along in the parade recoil when he hears gunfire the realism is there, the small light of truth in the midst of the patriotic propaganda. It is the same later on when having raised Ron to be an American patriot when he says he wants to be a Marine his own father is not so keen as he knows the truth of war rather than the propaganda fed to their children. To me this first part of "Born on the Fourth of July" is where the movie speaks loudest but it is a part which you don't fully see when you are young.
Of course there is the not so small subject of "Born on the Fourth of July" also being a Tom Cruise movie and as a teen I didn't enjoy his performance, something I realise now was down to the fact that to me Cruise was the cocky hero of movies and not an actor looking to show his range. Watching Cruise now as Ron Kovic it is actually a good performance and one which did show he was more than just a good looking actor who could flash a smile but it wasn't a great performance as at times it is awkward, showing aspects of an actor trying to be rather than being, thinking what to do rather than doing.
What this all boils down to is that "Born on the Fourth of July" is a movie which if you watched when you were young and didn't get is worth seeing again when you are older. But it has been for me always a movie with Oliver Stone getting across what he wanted to say rather than telling Ron Kovic's story.