Born on the 4th of July
A story of innocence lost and courage found.
Ron Kovic: Tom Cruise
Charlie: Willem Dafoe
Donna: Kyra Sedgewick
Timmy: Frank Whaley
Supporting Roles: Jerry Levine, Tom
Berenger, Raymond J. Barry, Caroline Kava
Before and during the Vietnam War, the American government told people of an “evil plague taking over the world” called communism. Although few people actually understood it, most Americans hated communism and every American’s duty was to fight it for their country. If you disagreed with the government, you would have been labeled a communist (Define fascism). This was the case in Born on the Fourth of July, when a young, patriotic American goes to war and suffers a paralyzing wound, only to return to America to see that his government lied to him, and that his country does not love him.
The movie opens by showing a young Ron Kovic doing things most kids would do: playing baseball games, playing war in the woods, and enjoying 4th of July parades. He grew up in the typical “baseball and apple pie” American family, and, in high school, Kovic (Tom Cruise) was the big wrestling star and lady-killer. Soon, America began sending troops and advisors to Vietnam, and he and some of his friends decided it was their “patriotic duty” to follow in the footsteps in their dads who fought in WWII. In one scene, Kovic and his friends sat in a restaurant and recited common government propaganda phrases to try to convince their friend to join them in enlisting: “Better dead than red.”
Kovic enlisted in the Marines to the approval of almost everyone he knew. Kovic’s parents also sympathized with the government and agreed with the war on communism. However his father, who was a WWII veteran, knew what war was like. He did not want to see his son get killed, but understood his motivations, and reluctantly supported his decision.
Soon enough, Kovic was in the middle of his second tour in Vietnam. One day, he and his platoon were near a village, and, in a very confusing situation, they mistook civilians for the Viet Cong, and killed them. Kovic attempted to help the few civilians who were still alive, but soon enough, the Viet Cong arrived, causing Kovic to run from a dying baby to a sand dune. A frightened Kovic began to shoot at anything that moved and made a huge mistake. This mistake probably distracted Kovic while he was later in a battle, which incidentally caused his own personal injury.
Kovic was then sent to a military hospital in New York, where he was treated with very little respect and no sympathy. All the hospital workers were colored, except for the doctors of course, and believed the Vietnam War was a white and rich man’s war. The hospital equipment was out of date, the staff was underpaid, and, in one scene when Kovic was in jeopardy of losing his leg, a pump used to maintain the circulatory system in his leg broke while he lied upside down staring at his own vomit.
When he finally was able to return home, he expected to receive a hero’s welcome. Unfortunately, to say the least, Kovic was not welcome with open arms. When his family greeted him home, his mother, who probably was Kovic’s greatest childhood influence, could not stand to see his son so helpless and weak, and literally runs away. Even his brother, who we saw before Kovic went to Vietnam playing a Bob Dylan song on his guitar and entering the life of a hippie, disapproved the war and wished his brother could have stayed home. At a fourth of July parade, where Kovic is the man of honor, he received harassment by demonstrators, which demoralized Kovic because, after all, he fought and lost his legs defending their rights, including their right to protest.
Finally, when Kovic realized his legs and manhood were not worth his beliefs, his feelings of the war changed. He loved his country very much, but could no longer support a war that ended the lives of so many innocent women, children, and his patriotic friends. One night, after returning home drunk from a bar, Kovic exploded on his parents (who still believed in the war) saying how the war was wrong and that his country lied to him and his friends. Kovic’s mother was still the conservative, naive woman she was before he went to Vietnam, and was forced into making choice: her country or her son. In tears, she orders her son to move out of the house.
Kovic then moved to Mexico with a group of paralyzed veterans, who escaped the same discrimination and disrespect as him. These were the only people he could possibly relate to, and, when he noticed they seemed happy, decided to join them in their drinking and purchasing of prostitutes. Because of his wounds, Kovic was left impotent, which made him believe that no woman could ever love him. He began to purchase prostitutes on a regular basis, to get just a taste of what could have happened if he had just been smarter. It is in Mexico that he hits rock bottom, and realizes that hiding in Mexico would not kill his demons.
Born on the Fourth of July is one of the greatest directing feats by Oliver Stone, or anyone else for that matter. From the beautiful and innocent scenes of Kovic’s days in high school to the confusing yet realistic scenes in Vietnam, Stone shows us the harm war causes and how just one god damn bullet can change a life forever. This is also the best performance that Tom Cruise has ever produced, which was noticed by the Academy who gave him his first Oscar nomination. And throughout the film, the beautiful score by John Williams (who was also nominated for an Oscar) makes us not only watch, but feel the movie.
Should America have fought in Vietnam? Probably not. Should the government have preached of the nobility of the war like they did for WWII? Definitely not. Oliver Stone and Ron Kovic both believed their nation when it called, went to war, got injured, and returned to America heartbroken, confused, and, unfortunately, hated. They try to tell Americans that we should not always listen to our hearts, but should pay attention to reason. They each ask their country, “Why did we fight in Vietnam?”