Saturday, October 1, 2011

Movie – Born on the Fourth of July (1989)

Born on the Fourth of July is the first movie where I sat up and took notice that Tom Cruise could really act.  He had shown some good promise in his earlier films The Color of Money (1986) and Rainman (1988), acting beside Paul Newman and Dustin Hoffman, respectively.  In both movies, though, he was still overshadowed by the legend he was working with, both of whom won Best Actor Oscars for their roles in those films.  Born on the Fourth of July, however, is all Tom Cruise.

The movie tells the mostly true story of Ron Kovic, decorated Vietnam War veteran turned protestor, who authored the book that the movie was based on.  It was the second movie that director Oliver Stone had done about Vietnam – the first being Platoon (1986).  In fact, there are a number of actors from Platoon that appear in this movie, but in different roles.  Although these two movies, along with Heaven & Earth (1993) are sometimes referred to as “Oliver Stone’s Vietnam trilogy” they have nothing to do with each other.  You don’t have to have seen Platoon before seeing Born on the Fourth of July.

Kovic, who was really born on July 4th, America’s Independence Day, grew up in a very patriotic and religious family.  He was a star high school wrestler and when a Marine recruiter came to his school he immediately signed up. 

The movie skips ahead to 1968.  Kovic is now a Sergeant and on his second tour of duty in Vietnam.  During a firefight Kovic accidentally shoots one of his own men.  Afterwards he tries to tell his commanding officer what occurred, but the officer just tells him to forget it happened.  Kovic is consumed by guilt over what he did.  A few weeks later Kovic is critically injured.

He wakes up in a veterans’ hospital to find out he is paralyzed from the chest down.  Conditions are deplorable at the hospital, with rats running around, doctors that don’t show up, and rampant drug use among the patients and staff.  The veterans are treated horribly.

Kovic stubbornly insists he will walk again, using crutches.  He keeps trying to make his way around and finally falls, injuring himself again.  He fractures his leg and may end up having to have it amputated.  His only hope of keeping his leg is a faulty piece of equipment that the government won’t give the hospital any money to replace.

When he eventually is released to his family’s care he can’t believe what he sees on the TV.  All the anti-war protestors piss him off and even his younger brother is against the war.  Despite his experiences he is still a staunch supporter of the war.  He doesn’t stay upbeat for long.  His situation, his break with his brother, and his mother’s denial of her son’s condition, drives him into a downward spiral.  He finally hits rock bottom one night after being dumped back home from a bar.  He confronts his mother in what might be the most powerful scene in the movie.

He travels to a town in Mexico that is sort of set up for disabled veterans like him.  He runs into another paralyzed man (Willem Dafoe) who has a major impact on him.  Determined to get his life back together, he first confronts his guilt over accidentally killing one of his men, then his growing disillusionment with the way his government treats its veterans.

The movie received eight Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture.  It lost to Driving Miss Daisy (1989).  It won two Oscars, including Best Director for Oliver Stone. 

Cruise was nominated for Best Actor, and playing a person who has a disability is normally catnip for Academy voters, so many people thought he was going to win.  He had the misfortune to be nominated in the same year as the great Daniel Day-Lewis, who played an even more disabled real-life person in his movie My Left Foot (1989).  (All props to Day-Lewis.  He deserved to win.  If you haven’t seen My Left Foot, find it.) 

Even though Cruise has been nominated two more times for acting, this is definitely his best performance to date.  The real Ron Kovic was so moved by Cruise’s performance in the movie that when filming completed he gave Cruise his Bronze Star that he had been awarded for Valor for his service in Vietnam.

One caution – the movie does not hold back on the horrors of war and recovery that the real Kovic went through.  I saw this when it came out in the theater and there was a teenage girl behind me who kept asking in a hurt and puzzled voice, “Why are they showing this?”  She had obviously come to see Top Gun 2: Tom Cruise is Really Hot.  Born on the Fourth of July is in no way, shape, or form another Top Gun.  (That is a compliment.)

Even if you hate anti-war protestors, I still highly recommend this film.  When you see what Kovic went through, the transition from strong war supporter to eventual war protestor is very believable and handled very well.  If you have never seen this movie and have never been able to take Tom Cruise seriously as an actor then you have to see this film.  It is the best performance of his career and he really delivers.

Chip’s Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

[Note – you can see all the Movies by Numbers, as well as get some hints on what’s to come, at this link.]

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