Article first published as Blu-ray Review: Born on the Fourth of July on Blogcritics.
Oliver Stone’s 1989 film, Born on the Fourth of July (now available on Blu-ray) is based on the autobiography of Ron Kovic, a Vietnam veteran who was wounded in combat and became an outspoken political activist in the years following his return to the U.S. Kovic is portrayed by Tom Cruise, who dedicated himself fully to the role. The film is a tale of the triumph of the human spirit, as well as a social commentary on the tumultuous times following the end of the Vietnam War. Though it has been over 20 years since its release, and nearly 40 years since the fall of Saigon, the repercussions of this time period still echo throughout society today. Stone, who co-wrote the screenplay with Kovic, unflinchingly covers both the personal and the political, leaving an impact that remains to this day.
Born on the Fourth of July begins with Kovic’s childhood in a Long Island suburb of New York. Young Kovic and his friends pretend they are soldiers in the woods near his home. He spends golden summers playing baseball, eagerly awaiting the town’s Fourth of July parade, which is also his birthday. The idyllic setting is exaggerated to show the contrast between Kovic’s childhood and his life during and after the Vietnam War. Stone throws in just a few blemishes to hint that life wasn’t all peaches and cream. As Kovic sits on his father’s shoulders during the parade he watches one of the marching veterans (the real Ron Kovic in a cameo) wince at the sound of firecrackers popping. Kovic also faces a lot of scrutiny from his overbearing mother (Caroline Kava) who expects perfection from her children. She tells Kovic that she will “love him anyway” even if he loses his wrestling match, but that he had better win regardless. She tells him that God will punish him after she finds a Playboy magazine hidden in his room.
Kovic’s mother also encourages him to go fight the war in Vietnam. She says it is his duty to fight the spread of communism. Kovic and a few of his friends are more than ready to head overseas and live out their childhood war fantasies. They’ve heard the war will be quick and easy, even fearing it will be over before they finish boot camp. Flash forward several years and Kovic is serving his second tour of duty in Vietnam. He witnesses atrocities beyond the scope of his imagination. He is thrust into situations impossible to rationalize. Kovic is wounded during battled resulting in paralysis from his mid-chest down. He spends months in a VA hospital before finally returning home.
Despite his injury and paralysis he remains as determined as he ever was. The scenes in the VA hospital are truly horrific. They are almost more terrible than many of the war scenes. Although Kovic is determined to recover, he must reluctantly accept that he will never walk again. Upon returning home to his parents he is eager to be a part of the Fourth of July parade. However, the parade is not the same as he remembered it. The crowd is mixed with war protesters who taunt him. He is confronted with hatred toward the government and military he has never faced, or even thought about, before. He spirals out of control when he begins to feel he has no purpose. It is not until he gets involved with political activism that he experiences a new self-discovery.
I would like to say the film is one-sided in its portrayal of the mistreatment of Vietnam vets, but it is hard to. History has shown the dilapidated conditions of VA hospitals. There is plenty of footage of war protesters jeering returning veterans. Stone by no means makes the actions of the protesters seem 100 percent right. Their disrespect is clearly portrayed. It is not until Kovic actually becomes one of them that he is taken seriously. This film does a great job of portraying the torment and strife Kovic faced in the years following the war. There is, however, one caveat I wish Stone had done differently. During the war Kovic believes he accidentally killed a fellow Marine during the confusion of an ambush. This is based on real events. What is not based on reality is the scene in which Kovic confronts the fallen Marine’s family to “confess.” I think it’s unfortunate Stone would include such a scene when it did not actually happen. It’s the kind of scene that changes the way we think about the character. It’s like saying the real Kovic was not quite good enough, so we need to do this. That of course is not true.
Other than that, Born on the Fourth of July illustrates the beginnings of the great political divide that is present in today’s society. The seeds of vitriol between the two parties were certainly sewn during those turbulent times. Right or wrong, fair or unfair, the days of seemingly unilateral reverence toward the government, and by association the military, were gone. The distrust of the government and scrutiny over the necessity of military action still hang in the air today.
This Blu-ray release does not contain any special features that weren’t already on the previous DVD release. There is a commentary from Stone and a featurette “From the NBC News Archives – Backstory: Born on the Fourth of July.” The featurette is very interesting. It features interviews, from the time of the film’s release, with Stone, Cruise, and Kovic. Stone explains his dedication to the project, which he had been trying to get off the ground since 1978. Kovic talks about how honored he was Stone kept his word in completing the project, and how impressed he was with Cruise’s dedication to the role. Cruise discusses how inspired he was by Kovic and the time he put into preparing for the role. There is also some old news footage of Kovic at some of the protests. Though it is not new to disc, it is a strong inclusion. The other features don’t have anything to do with this movie specifically. There are two featurettes about Universal Pictures 100 year anniversary. One is “Academy Award Winners,” and the other is called “The ’80s.”
The video is presented in 1080p/VC-1 2.35:1 HD. The picture quality is excellent, with very sharp detail. This was particularly effective during the close-ups of the actor’s faces, where the emotion in their eyes and facial expressions clearly came through. The colors were well represented in the barren, desert-like landscapes of the Vietnam setting (in actuality it was shot in the Philippines). Grain is quite heavy at times, though this seems to have been intentional to give the film an aged look. The sound is presented in DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio. The dialogue is distinct, including Cruise’s soft-spoken narration at the beginning of the film. The rear channels are well used for gunfire and explosions during the war scenes. John Williams’ score sounds quite nice in this lossless mix. Overall the sound is very good.
So many years later, Born on the Fourth of July stays as relevant as ever, serving as a reminder not to forget our country’s history and the mistakes—as well as the personal triumphs—that are part of it.