Born on the Fourth of July is partly a coming of age film and partly an anti-war film based on Ron Kovic’s biography. It opens with a look at Ron’s childhood in 1956, on his birthday, the Fourth of July. He watches the parade on top of his father’s shoulders and excitedly points out, “Look daddy, the soldiers!” These are old men being pushed in wheelchairs, flinching at the sounds of firecrackers, but I think all young Ron sees are decorated American heroes.
Ron (Tom Cruise) is the ultimate American boy. We see him playing little league baseball with his dad cheering in the stands. He kisses the pretty little blond girl under the fireworks. In high school, he’s a star wrestler, works hard at the local grocery store and prays that God will make him a soldier. He carries a strong sense of pride and duty about going toVietnam, telling his parents, including his WWII veteran father, “I want to go to Vietnam, and I’ll die there if I have to.
Ron’s tour of Vietnamis terrifying. There is so much confusion and the boys are so scared they just shoot at anything. They unknowingly open fire on a small village full of women and children and we are not spared the gory mess. After the boys are trying to figure out what to do and what went wrong they have to make a run for it, and in the confusion Ron accidentally kills one of his comrades, Wilson. Like the good, honest young man Ron was brought up to be, he tells his officers the fatal mistake, possibly looking for some punishment or penance. It seems they just want this accident to be swept under the rug, saying Wilsonwas simply killed in action. This only makes Ron feel guiltier, perhaps the reason he decides to take another tour of duty, where he is sent home, paralyzed.
Even after being told he will never walk again or be able to have children, Ron is determined to beat the odds and walk again. It’s the American way right? He can’t just take this sitting down. We watch him make some valiant efforts in physical therapy only to fall so hard he breaks his femur. At least we can take some comfort knowing he didn’t feel that, but this incident only keeps him in the hospital longer. The care for disabled vets at this hospital is terrible and the facilities are disgusting. These men have bed sores on their butt and poor Ron has to ring his buzzer for over two hours before anyone comes to check on him. Rightfully frustrated, he yells, “I fought for my country, I deserved to be treated descent!” Thing is, many of the staff at the hospital have ill feelings about why the Vietnam War is being fought and tend to ignore their more patriotic patients.
When Ron returns home, these anti-war ideals are spreading even thicker. Ron’s own brother tells him, “You served your country and what did you get out of it, I mean look at you.” Still, Ron tries to uphold his patriotic values and becomes the veteran in the Fourth of July parade that flinches at fireworks. It’s not until after Ron is beaten in a riot against peaceful anti-war protesters that he slips into an unpatriotic depression.
It is in this long-haired, alcohol fueled, pissed off version of Ron that Tom Cruise’s performance really bombed for me. Not only did I like him better as the innocent, All-American boy, but he was slightly more convincing there. Here, yelling profanities at his strict Catholic mom and getting in a cripple fight with Willem Dafoe after a binge of tequila and whores in Mexico, not only is it over the top, but I could not take it seriously. But I was glad when he sobered up and become a great anti-war leader for the Democratic Party. I hope that’s the part that the real Ron Kovic wants us to remember best.
While I did not particularly care for the film, I appreciate it. Oliver Stone always does a great job directing politically charged dramas, and Born on the Fourth of July is considered to be the second installment (between Platoon and Heaven & Earth) of his Vietnam trilogy. Ron Kovic’s life so dramatically changed by Vietnam is fascinating, but Tom Cruise does not do it justice. There’s just something I didn’t believe about being so stubbornly patriotic and then turning into an anti-war hippie so fast. If this is considered an anti-war film, does that gain or lose young, innocent Ron our sympathies?
“People say that if you don’t love America, then get the hell out. Well, I love America.”