Born on the Fourth of July – Review by Pauline Kael

Pauline Kael reviews Oliver Stone's 'Born on the Fourth of July' (1989). Published in The New Yorker, January 22, 1990
Tom Cruise (Ron Kovic) in Born on the Fourth of July (1989)


by Pauline Kael

Ron Kovic (Tom Cruise), the hero of Born on the Fourth of July, believes everything he hears at the Independence Day ceremonies in Massapequa, Long Island. Pure of heart and patriotic, he trusts in Mom, the Catholic Church, and the flag-waving values John Wayne stands for. Ron thinks war is glamorous; it’s how he’ll prove himself a man. And so he joins the Marine Corps, goes to Vietnam, and is shocked to discover brutality, dirt, and horror.

It’s almost inconceivable that Ron Kovic was as innocent as the movie and the 1976 autobiography on which it’s based make him out to be. Was this kid kept in a bubble? At some level, everybody knows about the ugliness of war. Didn’t he ever read anything on the Civil War—not even The Red Badge of Courage? When he was growing up, kids were into black humor, sarcasm, and put-ons. If he was as vulnerable to media influences as the movie and the book indicate, wouldn’t he have heard of Catch-22 and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest? Wouldn’t he have looked at Mad? Ron seems to have blotted out everything that didn’t conform to his priggish views. When his younger brother is singing “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” it doesn’t mean anything to him.

Born on the Fourth of July, directed by Oliver Stone, who wrote the script with Kovic, is committed to the idea of Ron’s total naiveté. He’s presented as a credulous boy whose country lied to him. Wherever you look in this movie, people are representative figures rather than people, and the falseness starts during the opening credits, with the dusty, emotionally charged Fourth of July celebration in 1956—Ronnie’s tenth birthday. Massapequa is less than an hour from New York City on the Long Island Rail Road, but this set (constructed in Texas) looks like Oliver Stone’s vision of Midwestern America in the fifties—clapboard picturesque. He uses slow motion to mythologize the drum majorettes. Even the kids’ baseball game is a slo-mo elegy. A lyrical glow fuses sports and kids playing soldier and civic boosterism and imperialism. And John Williams’ music is like a tidal wave. It comes beating down on you while you’re trying to duck Robert Richardson’s frenzied camera angles. So much rapture, so soon. I was suffering from pastoral overload before the credits w’ere finished.

Of course Ronnie’s country lied to him. Part of growing up is developing a bullshit detector, and kids usually do a pretty fair job of wising each other up. Ron Kovic’s Candide-like innocence matches that hazy archetypal parade: they’re both fantasies. But they make it easier for him (and the movie) to blame everybody for not stopping him when he wanted to be a hero. To Ron, the Marine recruiter (Tom Berenger) who comes to the Massapequa high school is like a god. Ron’s virginal high-mindedness makes him the perfect patsy for a before-and-after movie. What’s in between is Vietnam and the rise of the antiwar movement.

On Ron Kovic’s second tour of duty, in 1968, when he was a twenty-one-year-old sergeant, his spine was severed, and he was left paralyzed from the chest down. The movie is a scream of rage at how he was betrayed, mutilated, neglected; it’s also an uplifting account of how he boozed, quarrelled with everyone, and despaired until he stopped being contemptuous of the war protesters and became active in Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Kovic’s book is simple and explicit; he states his case in plain, angry words. Stone’s movie yells at you for two hours and twenty-five minutes. Stone tells you and he shows you at the same time; everything is swollen with meaning. The movie is constructed as a series of blackout episodes that suggest the Stations of the Cross; rising strings alert you to the heavy stuff. Then the finale—Resurrection—takes Ron into white light, and John Williams lays on the trumpets.

The central question that’s raised is “Why did you tell me lies about what war would be like?’’ It’s not “Why did you tell me lies about what the Vietnam War was about?’’—although it shifts into that at times. Stone’s most celebrated film, Platoon, culminated in the young hero’s shooting the man who represented evil, but Born on the Fourth of July appears to be a pacifist movie, an indictment of all war, along the lines of Dalton Trumbo’s 1939 protest novel Johnny Got His Gun. You can’t be sure, because there’s never a sequence where Ron figures out the war is wrong; we simply see him go from personal bitterness to a new faith. The morality of taking up arms in Vietnam (or anywhere else) isn’t really what the movie is about anyway. The audience is carried along by Tom Cruise’s Ronnie yelling that his penis will never be hard again. The core of the movie is Ron’s emotional need to make people acknowledge what he has lost. There’s a shrill, demanding child inside the activist—a child whose claims we can’t deny. And Stone’s visual rant slips by because this kid’s outrage at losing his potency is more graphic and real to us than anything else. It affects us in a cruder, deeper way than Ron’s sloganeering and his political denunciations of the war.

What we hear when Ron causes a commotion at the 1972 Republican Convention and shouts at Nixon is a kid who knows he has lost something and who is going to make an unholy fuss about it. He’s going to be heard. Yes, he’s expressing the rage of other disabled veterans who feel betrayed—wasted in a war we shouldn’t have got into. But what really reaches us is that Ron finds his lost potency when the Convention cameras are on him. He finds it in forcing the country to recognize what it did to him and others like him. He’s saying, “You owe me this,” or, “Activism is all you’ve left me, and you can’t take it away.” And he’s saying, “I paid for what I did over there, and I go on paying for it. You haven’t paid—your shame is greater.” He doesn’t really say that, but it’s what filmgoers hear and respond to. The movie, having presented him as the innocent Catholic boy going to war for the glory of God, now reaps the reward: the audience—some of the audience— experiences a breast-beating catharsis.

Almost everything else in this antiwar Fourth of July parade that spans twenty years is chaotic sensationalism. When Ron, in an argument with his mother, drunkenly pulls out his catheter and says, “It’s what I’ve got instead of a penis,” and she shrieks, “Don’t say ‘penis’ in this house!” she becomes a comic-strip uptight mom. And when he gets back at her by yelling “Penis! Penis!” at the top of his lungs, so the whole neighborhood can hear him, it’s a phony, easy scene. We’re supposed to see that his mother denies the realities of war and every other kind of reality—that this repressive mom who told him the Communists had to be stopped was part of the system that deluded him. We’re invited to jeer at her villainy.

A scraping-bottom scene that takes place on a roadside in the Mexican desert has a druggy, El Topo flavor. The burned-out, drunken Kovic brawls with another burned-out, drunken paraplegic (Willem Dafoe), and they spit in each other’s faces, knock each other out of their wheelchairs, and go on wrestling. The two men, fighting over which one takes the prize for committing the worse atrocities in Vietnam, are like bugs screaming in the sand; they’re right out of the theatre of the absurd—they’ve even got dry, rattlesnake sounds for accompaniment—and you have to laugh.

But it’s too showy, too style-conscious; it makes you aware of how overblown the whole movie is.

In Vietnam, Ron’s platoon, thinking they’re attacking Vietcong, massacre a group of village women and children. Then, during the confusion of a skirmish, Ron kills a nineteen-year-old soldier from Georgia, but can’t fully accept it—it happened so fast. He tells his major about it, and the major doesn’t want to hear it; he doesn’t know how to handle Ron’s confession, so Ron is stuck with the sickening guilt. After Ron is paralyzed and in a wheelchair, he makes a trip to Georgia to confess to the soldier’s parents and young widow. That may relieve Ron’s pain, but what about the pain he causes the others? (The father had been proud of the honor guard that came with the body.) The scene might be affecting if it were staged to show that Ron’s need is so overpowering he can’t consider the family’s grief. Instead, it suggests that Stone thinks even blind self-expression is good. (In the book, there’s no visit to Georgia. Maybe the trip took place, and Kovic left it out. But I remember the scene from an earlier movie, where after the war the protagonist went to the dead soldier’s family and asked forgiveness; there, though, the dead soldier was part of the enemy forces, and the protagonist was offering the family solace.)

Oliver Stone has an instinct for the symbolism that stirs the public. He clung to the Ron Kovic story that he first worked on as a screenwriter more than ten years ago. But he must never have been able to think the material through. Born on the Fourth of July seems to ride on its own surface, as if moviemaking were a form of surfing. Kovic doesn’t turn against the Vietnam War until long after he gets home, expecting to be welcomed as a hero, and is put in the rat-infested Bronx Veterans Hospital. What would have happened if people had been considerate and kind to Ron, and talked up his bravery? Would he have gone on being a warmongering patriot? I didn’t expect the movie to answer this kind of question, but I expected it to show enough about Ron’s character for us to make some guesses for ourselves. We come out knowing nothing about him except that his self-righteousness—his will to complain and make a ruckus—is rather glorious. I don’t think I’ve ever seen another epic about a bad loser; I wish Stone had recognized what he was on to, and shaped the conception. (In essence, Born is satire played straight. The impotent Ron Kovic holds the nation hostage.)

How is Tom Cruise? I forgot he was there. Cruise is on magazine covers. Of course he is—he’s a cute kid and his face sells magazines. And magazine editors may justify their cover stories by claiming he’s turning into a terrific actor. They may believe it, and moviegoers may assent. Moviegoers like to believe that those they have made stars are great actors. People used to say that Gary Cooper was a fine actor—probably because when they looked in his face they were ready to give him their power of attorney. Cruise has the right All-American-boy look for his role here, but you wait for something to emerge, and realize the look goes all the way through. He has a little-boy voice and no depth of emotion. (In Vietnam, when Ron barks orders to his squad there’s no authority in his tone; he still has no authority when he goes in to speak, by invitation, at the Democratic Convention in 1976.) Cruise does have a manic streak, and Stone uses it for hysteria. (He might be a tennis pro falling to his knees and throwing his fists up in the air.) Cruise gets through Stone’s noisy Stations of the Cross without disgracing himself, but he’s negligible. Nothing he does is unexpected. He’s likable in his boyish, quieter moments, but when those are over he disappears inside Ron Kovic’s receding hairline, Fu Manchu mustache, and long, matted hair.

Oliver Stone has a taste for blood and fire, and for the anguish and disillusionment that follow. Everything is in capital letters. He flatters the audience with the myth that we believed in the war and then we woke up; like Ron Kovic, we’re turned into generic Eagle Scouts. The counterculture is presented in a nostalgic, aesthetically reactionary way; it’s made part of our certified popular memories. Born on the Fourth of July is like one of those commemorative issues of Life—this one covers 1956 to 1976. Stone plays bumper cars with the camera and uses cutting to jam you into the action, and you can’t even enjoy his uncouthness, because it’s put at the service of sanctimony.

The New Yorker, January 22, 1990


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