Born on the Fourth of July is a 1989 flim based on the autobiography of the same name by Ron Kovic. Tom Cruise plays Kovic, an American soldier paralyzed in the Vietnam war who becomes an anti-war and pro-human rights political activist after feeling betrayed by the country he fought for. The film was directed by Oliver Stone and totals two hours and twenty five minutes in length. It was produced by Ixtlan and distributed by Universal. It is currently available in VHS and DVD formats.
Oliver Stone, when deciding to make this film, wanted to tell the reverse story of the one in Platoon, which showed the pain and turmoil of the trenches in Vietnam. Rather than stay in the trenches in southeast Asia, this movie instead heads to the homefront, telling the story of Ron Kovic. Kovic starts out as a Marine who believes in the myth of American might and superiority, the honor of military service, the heroic image of John Wayne, and the threat that communism posed. But in a battle on a Vietnamese beach during the Tet Offensive, Kovic was shot by a member of the Viet Cong and paralyzed from the waist down.
As a result of this tragedy, Kovic was left unable to walk, confined to a wheelchair to the rest of his life. When he returned home, he found that the rehabilitation was incredibly strenuous and painful and that just when he needed them the most, he discovered that his friends and family in his hometown of Massapequa, New York were at best indifferent towards him and at worst downright hostile towards him. When the government he fought to defend basically forgets about him once he is "rehabilitated," Kovic, once a diehard patriot, comes to realize he could be a force for positive change by protesting what the Vietnam war had done. Over time, he became one of the more prolific Vietnam war protestors, leading public outcry against what the war had done not only to him and to his fellow servicemen, but against what the war had done to America as a whole.
The movie comes off as a tale of courage, as it rightly should, but courage of a different kind than what is often portrayed in the movies. Rather than the pure courage of fighting in the trenches shown in the earlier Platoon, this movie instead shows the courage of standing up for what one believes in and the ability to grow and change as a person. It shows the courage of a man who is forced to lead a new life because of the hand dealt to him, and that he uses this new hand to play the game a bit differently.
Many people decried this film as being anti-American upon its release, as it clearly shows a negative side not only to war but to the people on the homefront as well. This perspective isn't without merit, but it seems to me that the real purpose of this film is to demonstrate the loss of innocence that everyone who lived through those times had to experience. Even more so, I think the film strives to tell the truth above all, debunking a lot of dangerous myths about America's anti-communist paranoia and our worshipping of John Wayne, whose image is like a ghost running through this film. Wayne's image as the gung-ho soldier willing to always lay his life on the line for his country is exposed here as being one-dimensional, which it clearly is. It also exposed the paranoia of the United States about communism as being baseless as well; rather than contemplating it and realizing the flaws inherent in a communist philosophy, we responded with fear and propaganda, and from Joseph McCarthy on forward, we followed a road that led to the Vietnam war.
Seeing this, I can't help but feel that this film is in fact very patriotic. Our founding fathers didn't follow blindly along a trail of rhetoric built for them by a government; instead, they designed their own path, carefully considering all of the junctures along the way. This movie questions what America really is; what exactly are we celebrating on July 4, anyway? That is the reason we have freedom of expression, after all; to contemplate and understand the decisions we make as a nation.
This film won two Academy Awards in 1990, for best director (Oliver Stone) and best film editing. It was nominated for six other Academy Awards, including best picture (which it inexplicably lost to Driving Miss Daisy). In addition, it was nominated for two British Academy Awards, and won four of the five Golden Globes it was nominated for, including the award it should have won at the Oscars, best picture.
The film was released in 2000 on DVD (along with a VHS re-release). The DVD is quite nice, featuring a very good feature-length director commentary from Oliver Stone that begs you to watch Platoon along with it. I can't help but feel as though this film and Platoon were somehow designed to fit together like hand and glove, together telling a complete story that neither one can quite grasp alone.
If you enjoyed this film, I would also recommend the wonderful Spike Lee film Malcom X, which offers up an additional perspective on the upheavals of America during the 1960s. I would also recommend Platoon, for the reasons stated above, as well as Heaven & Earth, which offers a third Oliver Stone perspective on Vietnam.