Tom Cruise, in a role that was a brave departure for him in 1989, plays Kovic in his adult years. Kovic grows up as a child of the American dream in 1950s Long Island. He's a God-fearing, baseball-hitting, patriotic lad who lives in an environment full of parades and malt shops. As a high school senior, young Ron doesn't think twice about signing up for the Marines, believing that he's doing the right thing for his country.
He does two tours of duty in Vietnam, a time that changes everything. He mistakenly guns down a Vietnamese family; then, minutes later, he accidentally kills a fellow soldier, so Kovic's mental torment is already hefty when he gets shot in battle, leaving him paralyzed.
After a lengthy stay at an understaffed and filthy VA hospital, Kovic returns home to find the environment has changed. Where's the red scare everyone was talking about? What happened to the American dream that he pursued? "I don't feel like myself anymore," he tells a childhood friend. Kovic starts drinking, rejects God and his family, and wastes time whoring and boozing with other vets in Mexico, where he officially hits rock bottom before making amends with his recent past.
Kovic's story should be riveting on its own -- a young man who realizes a little too late that his whole life has been a sham. Stone, who co-wrote the movie with Kovic, is not content to let Kovic's life speak for itself. Born on the Fourth of July is a mish-mash of extreme close-ups, slow motion photography, and heavy-handed imagery and sound effects. The result: Kovic's story gets muffled in all of the gee-whiz technique, zapping any emotion and personal touch from the material. It's tough to distinguish the subject from Stone's attempt to wow us with bleached out shots and sound symbolism. John Williams' saccharine score serves only to turn Kovic into more of a stylistic conduit.
What's so frustrating is that there are opportunities to show Kovic's metamorphosis. One is when he takes a trip to visit an old flame (Kyra Sedgwick), now an anti-war protester. The other is the trip to Mexico. Both subplots are important because they open Kovic's eyes to the failures in his life, but the most effecting parts of those scenes don't involve any internal reflection. In Syracuse, it's a student protest that goes violently awry; in Mexico, it's Cruise and Willem Dafoe spitting at each other in the middle of a desert.
I'll give Stone credit for capturing the craziness of Kovic's life, but he fails to give a human face to his free fall. Stone, who (incredibly) won a Best Director Oscar, gives a cinematic face to it. You never feel that Kovic is the subject of his own movie. He's indeed an outsider, but in the worst way.
Aka Born on the 4th of July.
Run time: 145 mins
In Theaters: Friday 5th January 1990
Box Office Worldwide: $161M
Distributed by: Universal Pictures
Production compaines: Universal Pictures, Ixtlan
Contactmusic.com: 2.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 90%
Fresh: 35 Rotten: 4
IMDB: 7.2 / 10
Director: Oliver Stone
Producer: A. Kitman Ho, Oliver Stone
Starring: Tom Cruise as Ron Kovic, Raymond J. Barry as Mr. Kovic, Caroline Kava as Mrs. Kovic, Holly Marie Combs as Jenny, Kyra Sedgwick as Donna, Tom Berenger as Recruiting Gunnery Sgt. Hayes, Rob Camilletti as Tommy Finnelli, Stephen Baldwin as Billy Vorsovich, Mark Moses as Arzt, Vivica A. Fox as Hooker, Lili Taylor as Jamie Wilson, Jerry Levine as Steve Boyer, Frank Whaley as Timmy, Willem Dafoe as Charlie, Josh Evans as Tommy Kovic