“Born on the Fourth of July” is the emotional journey of real-life wounded Marine Ron Kovic, but director Oliver Stone keeps nosing his way into the frame.
Stone only appears on screen in a cameo, but it’s the famed director’s presence that is so jarring and omnipresent.
“July,” just re-released on Blu-ray as part of Universal’s 100 year anniversary celebration, remains one of the director’s most watchable features. The 1989 film is alternately harrowing and moving, the tale of an All-American lad who turns on his country after getting paralyzed fighting a war he came to see as having dubious goals.
Tom Cruise crushed any whispers he was more movie star than actor by playing Kovic. The actor, in his late 20s at the time, convincingly ages while altering his body to suggest the toll paralysis takes on the human form.
When left alone, Cruise’s transformation into Kovic is inspiring, complete with receding hair and an utter lack of movie star trappings. But Stone won’t stand by and allow that to happen. From the film’s bucolic opening, a veritable smorgasbord of Americana, to the fist-pumping protests in the second half, Stone makes sure we know who is pulling the strings. He maxes out his slow-motion shots in the film’s first few moments alone, even if he renders every overstuffed image for maximum beauty.
Stone props up – and then dismantles – American archetypes like prom night and the local baseball diamond even before a weaponized Ron touches down on foreign soil.
Little Ron grew up like most boys of his generation. He worshiped God, John Wayne and the New York Yankees, not always in that order. So when the drums of war began pounding in the 1960s, Ron signed up to fulfill his patriotic pledge.
He gets seriously wounded in the jungles of Vietnam and returns home a changed man in more ways than one. Now, he’s questioning not only why America went to war in the first place but the whole mythos attached to his native soil.
Stone gets away with plenty in “July,” from the ripe emotional moments like Ron's prom kiss to the punishing scenes of Ron’s initial rehab. The director is no hack, even if every other scene is accompanied by exclamation marks.
The film doesn’t bother with any serious conversations about the Vietnam conflict. Nor does Ron or any other character get into a meaningful exchange of the core issues facing the country. Ron grew up thinking one way, and later had an incremental change of heart. Stone cannot see another side, and he doesn't bother to try.
Ron's evolution is laid out in sharp detail, and the film rarely stops to lionize him,particularly during an extended sequence set south of the border. Stone is enamored with the former Marine’s positions, not his persona. That quality makes "July" richer than some of Stone's more fist-pounding pictures.
Yet when Stone stages an anti-war protest, the group’s messages are scrubbed of any radicalism while the police attempting to enforce order are shown smacking their billy clubs into their meaty hands in anticipation of violence to come.
For Stone, the nobility of protest - and of his progressive mindset - trumps all.
As good as Cruise is throughout the film, it's his inflammatory decision to tell a fallen soldier’s family the truth about their son’s death that lets us watch him shift permanently past his pretty boy image.
John Williams' score may be one of his most underrated, its beauty clashing and complementing the pain Stone so eagerly puts up for our consideration.
The Blu-ray comes with an archival NBC News segment on the film as well as a chatty, engaging director’s commentary track. Stone is a natural at the format, mixing technical jargon with stirring remembrances from the film’s shoot.
“You have to have good corn, you have to dress up the cliché,” Stone says about his approach to "Born on the Fourth of July." What a shame someone didn't tell him it's also best not to leave so many fingerprints on the finished print.
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