Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Born in the Fourth of July (1989)

Title: Born on the Fourth of July (1989)

Director: Oliver Stone

Writers: Oliver Stone, Ron Kovic

Cast: Tom Cruise, Willem Defoe


The other day I was walking around town, just hanging out on a beautiful sunny day and I came upon this group of American tourists. For those of you who don’t know, I live in Puerto Rico, an island of the Caribbean. We are territory of the U.S., but we have our own government, it’s what is commonly referred to in our island as a commonwealth. We can’t vote for the president of the U.S., but we can go to war for the U.S. The United States has military bases stationed all over the island because our position on the map is strategic, for military purposes. So the other day I’m walking around town and I see this group of about four Americans, looking like they’d been partying for days on end. You know, they had that partied out look. Actually, to be honest, they looked like a group of either drunks or junkies, I couldn’t decide which. Maybe both. So there I am, smoking a cigarette with a friend of mine and I walk up to one of them and I ask “where you guys from?” the guy says: “Texas” and I go “You guys came to Puerto Rico to party huh?” And he went on to tell me how he was a soldier who’d been stationed in Irak and how war had fucked him up beyond repair. His words were “it changes you”.

Now, I’ve personally never been to war and I don’t think I ever will be. Don’t know about you guys, but it’s not in me to kill somebody else; especially not for political reasons. My only references to war come from movies. The guy tells me that he wants to go back to war, because he can’t function properly in regular society anymore. Immediately, The Hurt Locker (2008) , First Blood (1982) and Platoon (1986) popped to mind and I asked him if he’d seen them. He said he didn’t know what I was talking about. I felt like an idiot because this guy has probably been through hell, seen lots of death and destruction first hand, and there I was talking about movies. I never saw those guys again; don’t know if they were court marshaled or if they ever got back on their boat or if they ever went back to war or what. But his words after that conversation stayed with me. “It changes a man” and at certain point in the conversation the words “I don’t like to talk about it” turned up as well. Now, when a person says that, you know they have been deeply wounded. Which brings me to my review for today: Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July.

Born on the Fourth of July is the story of an American boy named Ron. Ron likes playing war with his friends from school, he loves going to the 4th of July parade, and he loves America! His family is the kind of family who goes to Church on Sundays and believes in the American Dream. They love their country, love God, so when Ron decides that after high school he is going to enlist, mom gives the O.K.! In fact, she fully supports her sons’ desires to go to the Army and fight against ‘The Reds’. She simply tells her son “Ronnie, you’re doing the right thing! Communism has to be stopped! It’s God’s will that you go and I’m proud of you!” This was during the time when Americans hated the Russians and saw them as public enemy #1, the evil communist plague that was going to take over the world. Everyone thought the Russians where going to bomb us with their nukes. Ron wants to do what he thinks is right so he goes to fight for his country. Unfortunately for him, he ends up going to Vietnam. Will he survive the war and its psychological aftermath? Will he be the same when he returns?

Innocense before it is lost

Oliver Stone’s films often times fall under the category of ‘subversive’ or anti-government, and Born on the Fourth of July is one of those. The word subversive can be seen as a negative by many, specially those who love their government, but the fact of the matter is that sometimes, you have to call things for what they are, and lets face it, the U.S. Government hasn’t always been squeaky clean. In fact, they have played quite dirty over the course of American history. Oliver Stone simply points his finger at these moments in which the government has failed its people. In his own words, and this is a point that is hammered across in Born on the 4th of July quite often, Oliver Stone does not hate America, he simply does not agree with the way that the government behaves itself sometimes. On this film, he focuses on the way the system will raise you up in believing that God wants you to go and fight for your country, that this is the right thing to do. And then after you risk and sacrifice your life and your psychological well being, they spit you out, and treat you like crap. They give you a shinny medal to hang on your wall. Which serves you for absolutely nothing; except to remind you of the hell you went through.

One last moment of love before going to war

Ron Kovic, this films main character is played by Tom Cruise. I’ll just jump right here and say that this is without a doubt in my mind Tom Cruises’s finest day as an actor. He was trying to present himself as a serious actor, not just a commercial one. He’d done only two dramatic roles before this one. The Color of Money () for Martin Scorcese and Rain Man (1988) acting side by side with Dustin Hoffman. So he was on the up and up, trying to be taken seriously in Hollywood instead of being just another pretty face. I have to say he achieved his goal to perfection. This is a solid performance from Cruise; he goes deep in the insanity, in the grime, into the suffering. There are some really heartfelt moments on this film. One moment has Ron Kovic in a hospital, trying to recuperate from a nearly fatal injury, yet he is treated with neglect by the hospital. In one particularly desperate moment Kovic emphatically requests: “All I’m saying is that I want to be treated like a human being! I fought for my country! I am a Vietnam veteran! I fought for my country!” Unfortunately, once you have served your purpose, your country doesn’t care much about you. They may give you some money, but they can’t give you your lost limbs back can they? They can’t give you your sanity back either. Or a decent nights sleep, without the night terrors.

Oliver Stone

Like many war movies, this one focuses on how a veteran will have a hard time adjusting to regular every day life after going through war. Little things don’t seem to matter much, and the noises of war will forever echo inside your head. Ron tries living with his family, but somehow, the war and Vietnam always pops up, suddenly, Kovic is a very bitter person. He gets to the point where he can no longer live in peace with his own family. Mother and Son now hate each other! We get to see a family destroyed and betrayed by their own beliefs. The differences are so big now between Ron and his family that he simply has to leave, so he ends up going to Mexico to live in this resort where a bunch of Vietnam veterans go to pass their last days. There he meets Willem Defoe, who plays a character that mirrors Ron in a way. Ron sees similarities between himself and this guy. But he thinks ‘I don’t want to become this guy’. By the way, we get yet another memorable performance from the always great Defoe. I mean, I don’t think I’ve seen a film of his where I have been disappointed.

Escaping to Mexico to try and forget the madness of war

Born on the Fourth of July takes place during the late 60’s and early 70’s when the American people were more then fed up with the Vietnam war, there were lots of revolts on the streets, public out cries against the war. One pivotal scene takes place in a University Campus in which the police starts hitting the protesters. My question is this: what ever happened to freedom of speech during those days? Did it disappear? This part of the film got me sad, because this is currently happening where I live. There’s a population in revolt against the current government, and when people complain here, the government answers with pepper spray, and an army of police men ready to rip you a new asshole. Literally! I have seen it personally, people exercise their right to freedom of speech, and all they get is hit on the face by a club. Oppression is a sad thing, especially when it happens in a country where there is supposed to be none. Worse part is that during the 60’s people were speaking up for peace! For and end to war, and what they get in return is more violence.
Students vs. Police Men. Cops with Guns, Students with Flowers. This picture was taking a couple of months ago, during a protest in the University of Puerto Rico

Technically speaking this is one of Oliver Stone’s most beautiful looking films. The first 20 minutes of the film, where we see the Ron’s picket fence all American neighborhood is a beautiful way to open the movie. Stone really captured this sort of suburban way of living, with the suburban neighborhoods, the friends you grow up with, the backwoods where you played your games as a kid. Your first girlfriends, you high school dance, all these moments that capture your typical American up bringing, and its all done in such a colorful, bright and shinny fashion. As if to clash with the horror that is to come in the second half of the film, after Ron returns from Vietnam. The beauty of ‘normal’ life vs. the horrors of a war torn life. The second half of the film is darker in tone, fiercer somehow, it captures that aura of desperation, of rebellion and of chaos that permeated the America of the late 60’s and 70’s. The time of Nixon’s reign of terror as I like to call it.

Real life Kovic vs. Tom Cruises portrayal of him

So ladies and gentlemen don’t know how many of you have seen this film, but it’s an amazing movie. It’s the true definition of an ‘emotional rollercoaster ride’. It is epic in scope, and it speaks of realities that none of us should ever ignore. There is something I like about Oliver Stone’s films, many of them are based on real life stories, so the result is a film that rings very true, very genuine and this was definitely the case with Born on the Fourth of July, its based on the real life experiences of Ron Kovic, the all American boy who wanted to be a war hero. He wanted to be the best damn soldier to ever serve his country, and then reality kicked in. By the way, Kovic himself wrote the script along with Oliver Stone, so I guess that makes the film that much more accurate. Another cool thing about this movie: it has tons of cameos! If you look closely you’ll see a lot of familiar faces peppered out through out the whole film, you gotta keep your eyes open though. I recently acquired an Oliver Stone Boxed Set, so Ill continue my reviews for Stone’s films for the next couple of days, be on the look out for that!

Rating: 5 out of 5

Born on the Fourth of July [HD DVD]Born on the Fourth of JulyPlatoon - 20th Anniversary Collector's Edition (Widescreen)


Unknown said...

Awesome review! I really dig this film, too. I agree with you that Stone really reached into Cruise and pulled out an incredible performance. As you say, it may be his best one to date. Cruise strikes me as the kinda actor that responds to strong material and even stronger director - some of his best work has been with auteurs, people like Scorsese, Paul Thomas Anderson, Michael Mann, Stone...

And this film really resonates with the disillusionment so many people feel about America right now which makes it even more relevant than ever before.

I look forward to your future Stone film posts. I love so many of his films as well.

Franco Macabro said...

Hey, great to see somebody reacting to these Oliver Stone reviews, the last one I did for Stone's Heaven and Earth didnt get a single reply, and its such an awesome movie!

I think what also helped Cruise was that he had coaching and spent a lot of time with Kovic himself, the real guy he was portraying. Agree, Cruise works best when working with a good director.

By the way, today The Film Connoisseur celebrates one year of publication! I'll be doing something special tomorrow to celebrate it, but just thought I'd say something since today is the official birthday of this blog!

Thanks for being a regular reader and commenter J.D.!

Unknown said...

Congrats on your 1 year anniversary! Since I discovered your blog I've enjoyed everything you've written even I haven't always commented. Keep up the good work!

Franco Macabro said...

Thanks J.D.! I'll post a celebratory blog post sometime today, its just that I've been kind of busy, but thanks for the kind comments and for reading man!

The Dude Abides!

Neil Fulwood said...

Amen to J.D.'s comments! This is a great post, Francisco. I completely agree that Cruise's performance as Ron Kovic is a career best.

As distressing as any of the combat scenes are moments back home where it becomes clear that Kovic's experiences have created a schism between the person he is now and the person he was - and by extension, a schism between him and his family. There's an agonising scene where his mother is offering platitudes and he screams that he's impotent and she berates him for using the word "penis". It hammers home the generation gap and the attitude that some people have towards the disabled that it's easier to say comforting things and turn your eyes away than engage with the reality of their lives.

I remember seeing this on the big screen. I was seventeen when it came out. After the film ended, I just walked around on my own for about an hour, thinking about the film.

Franco Macabro said...

Thanks for commenting Neil!

Yeah, that scene is awesome, he gets home all drunk after trying to hang out in a bar, he gets extremely hammered to the point where he passes out. And then he has that fight with his mom where she asks him not to say "penis" and his answer is:

"Penis! Penis! Big hard erect Penis Ma!"

Yeah, this movie got to me, as many of Oliver Stones films do. I guess they adress issues that matter so much, that feel so real, that you cant help but be affected by them.

I havent written a review for JFK yet, but boy did that one get to me! Shocking beyond belief. We live in a dark world, shrouded by illusion. But hey, what an awesome movie.

luis said...

cool review, i love that movie and tom cruise did a great job onj it, my favorite movie of him along with jerry maguire and last samurai.

Unknown said...

JFK is an incredible film. Say what you will about Stone's "theories" but it is still one helluva thriller. I tend to go between it and NIXON as my fave Stone films of all-time.

Franco Macabro said...

Yeah, Stone depicted his theories quite well, but maybe they werent exactly his theories because he based the film on two books on the matter, but Im pretty sure he agreed with them.

Wow, that footage of Kennedy's head blowing up into a gazillion pieces really shocked me, I had personally never seen it, but it was awful. The whole thing with the black ops got me a bit upset to, cant believe those guys actually exists!

I've yet to see NIXON, but its the next one I will be watching that is for sure!


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