As a movie portrait, Born on the Fourth of July is often magnificent. A reworking by director Oliver Stone and ex-Marine Ron Kovic of Kovic's book about his Vietnam experience, it offers a harrowing, often epic account of a man caught in a personal and national tragedy. Kovic went from being a blindly patriotic volunteer to a Marine who in his second Vietnam tour accidentally shot one of his squad members during a firelight and took part in an attack on a village in which innocent civilians were killed and wounded. Then Kovic himself was hit and paralyzed from the waist down. In the aftermath of his grueling experiences in treatment and his return home to Long Island, N.Y., he became as passionate an opponent of the war as he had once been its advocate, as leader of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Stone fills the screen with panoramic images, from parades Kovic remembers from his childhood to frighteningly graphic battle scenes to Kovic's stint in a nightmarish veteran's hospital.
Cruise, laying to rest any doubts about his acting ability left over by The Color of Money And Rain Man, conveys Kovic's anguish so well that it's often painful to look at him. Steely indeed is the heart that can't be touched by the scene in which Cruise, despairing over his inability to have sex, cries to his father, "Who will love me?"
(Raymond J. Barry, as Kovic's father, Frank Whaley, as Kovic's best friend, and Kyra Sedgwick, as the girl Kovic hopes to come back to, are especially notable in a strong supporting cast.)
As a political argument, which it is trying to be much of the time, this movie fails. More damaging to the film's attempt to condemn the war as a ruthless lie is the unique nature of what happened to Kovic. Stone treats Kovic's understandable embitterment as if it proves his and Kovic's point that the American government lied about the war from start to finish. Not every tragic life is a metaphor, however. Even those sympathetic to the Stone-Kovic thesis will have a hard time finding a convincing statement of their position in this movie—full as it is of overstated images, redundant flashbacks, obtrusively fulsome background music and portrayals of pro-war advocates as gullible and/or bloodthirsty hypocrites.
As he did in Platoon and Wall Street, Stone still has so much trouble knowing when to stop that it seems likely that if he had written the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln would have ended it by saying, "And that speech was about how we should all be interested in freedom."
In one scene Cruise and Willem Dafoe, as another wheelchair-bound vet, argue over who is more qualified to talk about Vietnamese babies killed in the fighting, then tumble to the ground in a pathetic scuffle. This is all excruciatingly painful and moving, but Stone insists on having Cruise belabor the obvious by longing for "things that made sense, things you could count on—before we got so lost."
Any movie dedicated to William Westmoreland would be unlikely to offer any enlightening overall view of Vietnam; this one, dedicated to Abbie Hoffman, doesn't really provide any insight either. For all its strengths, it is another stray piece of a jigsaw puzzle that may never have been complete in the first place. (R)