Original US release date: December 22, 1989
Production budget: $14,000,000
Worldwide gross: $161,001,698
For the second week in a row, #ThrowbackThursday features a Tom Cruise film. That’s not by design (though I can tell you that more are on the way, at some point) and, unlike last week’s featured movie, I had never seen Born on the Fourth of July before watching it for this column. When it hit theaters, I was too young to see it and too young to have any interest and, since then, I simply never took the time to sit down and watch it until now.
Nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture (and taking home two of them – Best Director and Best Film Editing), Born on the Fourth of July tells the true story of Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic, who becomes an antiwar activist after being paralyzed during the horrific conflict in Asia. The film is based on the memoirs of Kovic, himself, who also collaborated with director Oliver Stone on the film’s screenplay. Kovic’s heavy participation in the making of the film not only ensured that the events were replicated as authentically as possible from Kovic’s perspective, but also that the true depths of the despair and feelings of abandonment felt by Vietnam veterans breached the film’s surface. Director and co-screenwriter Stone is best known for his provocative political thrillers (such as, in addition to this film, Platoon and JFK) and clearly felt right at home while working on Born of the Fourth of July. Together, the pairing of Stone and Kovic crafted one of the more sincerely haunting and memorable movie representations detailing the effects that war can have on one person and on an entire country.
What truly struck me during my viewing of the film is how similar the American political climate during and following the Vietnam War was to today’s. Many Americans were against the Vietnam War due to increased implementation of the draft, President Lyndon Johnson’s misrepresentations regarding the difficulty of winning the war, and America’s seeming incompetence at protecting the innocents in North Vietnam, itself. Split right down the middle, Americans were at odds. “Love it or leave it” was the slogan of choice for those who either lacked the ability or the desire to understand the message and the goals of the protestors (whose most egregious action to the war supporters was flag burning) – protestors who were themselves acting out of an honest love of America and its people.
During the war, Ron Kovic finds himself coming of age and enthusiastic about fighting for his country. He can’t understand why many of his fellow countrymen and countrywomen are so forthright in their disdain for the war and America’s then-leadership. With great anticipation, Kovic travels to Vietnam to do what he considers to be his patriotic duty. After he experiences the horrors of the war – which include being committed to a wheelchair for the rest of his life after he is injured and loses the ability to use his legs – he returns home to find an even more divided America.
Many are unsympathetic to his plight, claiming that he asked for it by volunteering in the face of such an imposing draft. Others – including some in his own family – feel badly for him but see his injuries as further evidence that America’s leadership has poor judgment and misplaced priorities. Kovic initially stands firm in his unwavering support for the government and the war but as the fallout of his time there continues to mount and have a negative and seemingly irreversible effect on his life, he begins to listen to some of the protestors who are close to him and understand their perspective.
As mentioned, this kind of film is Oliver Stone’s specialty and he effortlessly translates the political war that waged in America as the physical war waged in Vietnam to the silver screen. The anger, the hurt, the sadness, the fear, and the near-hopelessness permeate every frame and every interaction throughout the movie. Along the way, Tom Cruise functions expertly as Stone’s artistic medium. No matter the stroke that Stone wishes to make on his celluloid canvas, Cruise is willing and able to comply, exhibiting a complex mix of patriotism, desperation, depression, and internal conflict that must have been felt by all who were directly affected by the conflict at that time.
Today, at a time in modern America when people are protesting as a way of asking for help – pleading that the country walk the walk and not just talk the talk as the land of equality – and are being met with accusations that they are somehow un-American and that they should leave the country, Born on the Fourth of July serves as a sobering reminder that America has been in similar situations before (if, in the case of the film,for a very different reason) and can come through it. But that is only possible when its citizens close their mouths and give their ears a chance. Listen. Understand why people are upset with the country. It doesn’t mean they hate America. It means they fear that America is no longer (or maybe never truly was) what is proclaims itself to be. And they know it can do better.
Films such as this one are genuinely important pieces of work. They educate, they illuminate, and they remind us of who we are supposed to be as a culture, both within our own countries and as part of a species that is trying to live together on a planet that is becoming relatively smaller and smaller by the day. Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July is a timeless work of art that addresses the effects of both war and blissful ignorance on people as individuals and society as a whole. Never will it be a bad time to receive a reminder that we are responsible for ourselves but also for protecting each other, and we each have a choice to accept that responsibility or to stop pretending that we wish to be a part of society as a whole.
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