With the exception of JFK’s stunning cinematic bravura, arguably Born on the Fourth of July is Oliver Stone’s most accomplished film. The remarkably told story of Ron Kovic, all American boy turned war activist, exemplifies Stone’s ability to create American period nostaglia with impeccable tonal accuracy and also eviserate it with bold uncompromising cinematic force. With expert help from other giants of cinema Robert Richardson, John Williams and editors Joe Hutshing/David Brenner Born on the Fourth of July resounds, argubaly, as the foremost film on the subject of Vietnam.
Born on the Fourth of July (1989) dir. Oliver Stone
Starring: Tom Cruise, Raymond J. Barry, Caroline Kava, Frank Whaley, Willem Dafoe, Jerry Levine
By Alan Bacchus
The element of this picture which jumps out at us immediately is Robert Richardson’s cinematography. By 1989 Richardson has almost exclusively worked with Stone, at first employing a conventional and natural approach to lighting far removed from his signature look of the 90’s up to today. Both Richardson’s and Stone’s cinematic skills evolved in tandem from Salvador, Platoon, Wall Street and Talk Radio. The look of Born on the Fourth of July shot in stunning anamorphic seems to represent a monumental leap forward in their visual style. The opening sequence of young Kovic playing ‘war’ with his childhood friends through the forests of Massapeque, NY, watching a July 4th street parade and his athletic heroics on the baseball field is startlingly rich in dreamy romanticized imagery, an effect which expertly establishes the childhood of Kovic and his conservative Americana-personified upbringing.
Later seeing Tom Cruise as a young idealist sheltered in his middle-class enclave naïve to the world and susceptible to American cold war propaganda, adds even more weight to Kovic’s dramatic character arc which would encompass the next two and half hours. Stone’s bold point of view often characterized as overbearing and bombastic, is fully established here. But Stone earns his right to tell his story this way when executed with such technical perfection and inhabited by truthful humane performances.
Stone and co-writer Kovic choose to structure the film in distinct chapters of his life. After Kovic’s pre-war homelife established, Stone crafts a remarkable Vietnam sequence where we witness the war atrocities through Kovic’s eyes. Like his work in Platoon, the sequence is remarkably harrowing, but considerably different in style than the gritty realism of Platoon. Here it’s a different kind of grit. Bathed in golden colours of the Vietnamese sand and sun, this war sequence serves to contrast the startling violence with the stunning beauty of the landscape – a visual cue which ties into Kovic’s anti-war speech later in the film. The sights and sounds of the decimate family village filled with dead bodies and screaming babies, as it did for Kovic, never leaves us.
Stone’s next chapter puts us in another kind of hell, the war hospital in the Bronx which housed crippled veterans such as Kovic. The expertly choreographed establishing scene nimbly visualizes the unique characters and flavour of Kovic’s stay at the hospital. We’re introduced to a number of colourful personalities who gradually change Kovic’s political outlook.
Kovic’s return to Massepequa consumes much of the second act running time. As Kovic tries to re-enter civilian society much has changed since his childhood. The anti-war fervour replaces the wholesome values of Kovic’s childhood, in particular the collective resentment of Vietnam vets and contributors to the government’s global desire for war. Cruise’s exagerrated performance is uncompromising, and perhaps conscious or not, uncomfortable and grating, but necessary to Kovic’s evolution. The anger and resentment which percolates through the awkward dinner table sequences are shot to make us uncomfortable, leading to Cruise’s dramatic drunken breakdown to his mother and father.
Kovic’s transition to liberal activism is aided by a journey to Mexico, a narrative device which reveals to us the strong elements of ‘Mythic storytelling structure’. Mexico thus becomes Kovic‘s walkabout, encountering vets played by Willem Dafoe and Frank Whaley who serve as his mentors and guides to his return and rebirth as Ron Kovic the activist.
Born on the Fourth of July also represents Stone’s first collaboration with John Williams. While Williams’ work with Steven Spielberg is obviously cited as an influential director/composer relationship, Williams’ work with Stone on three pictures (inc. JFK and Nixon) we should also cherish. William’s romantic score is haunting and hypnotic and perfectly compliments the melancholy tone throughout the film. It seems to be a simpler use of music, unlike the wall-to-work accompanyment in the Spielberg films, Williams seems to use only one cue, reusing and reworking it throughout to provide a througline across the varying chapters of Kovic’s life (and later reused and overused in other film’s trailers). The work is supremely memorable.
In looking back at this film, which rightfully earned Stone a second Best Director Oscar, in the context of Stone’s whole filmography, it exemplifies Stone’s talents better than any other film.