Born on the Fourth of July
Revisiting the oeuvre of Oliver, I’m reaching the realisation that the degree of qualitive consistency I credited to his earlier directorial efforts (up to around the point he concluded his Vietnam trilogy) isn’t actually there. Or rather, they’re blessed with the wrong kind of qualitative consistency. Watching Born on the Fourth of July is like being beaten about the head with a block hammer. There’s zero room for subtlety or nuance in Stone’s long-in-development adaptation of Ron Kovic’s story. The inability to convey such tones may, in certain of his pictures, actually be a plus – it’s probably no coincidence the director’s best works, Salvador and JFK, rely on overstatement – but with this kind of material, loaded as it is with readily recognisable tropes – falls from innocence; yearnings for yesteryear – it’s an absolute hindrance.
And when you ladle a dose of John Williams on top of Stone’s meat feast, the effect is almost suffocating. Williams’ score is brilliant but also much, much too much. It overwhelms an already overamped movie. It also, curiously, highlights unobvious parallels between Spielberg – the go-to Williams director – and Stone. Temperamentally and politically, they couldn’t be more different (Spielberg is resolutely apolitical, which makes his Oscar-grab, issues movies all the more overtly cynical). Stone’s blood, sweat and blowjobs most definitely are not Spielberg, yet the swirling suffusion a Williams score lends to a Stone movie (see also JFK) highlights a common obsession with Americana and what it once was (or purported to be).
In both Born on the Fourth of July and JFK, that takes the form of the mournful nostalgic romance of a country lost. In the latter, the idyll is punctured by assassination, and reality can never be the same again. Born on the Fourth of July, at first glance, has more conflicting rhythms accompanying its barrage of inescapable ’50s perfection, reflected off the impassive mask of young Ron: a lad partial to a game of Germans and Americans, and born on that iconic day. Stone manufactures a cartoon of the era but plays it – as he tends to – with a comprehensive lack of irony (Williams, when he isn’t in Raiders of the Lost Ark/ Star Wars territory, is also quite resilient to mirth). It smacks you in the face and then pins you down, like Ron (now Tom Cruise) being overpowered during a wrestling bout.
And when Stone fractures this idyll with morbid harbingers – the wheeled-on veterans during the parade – it’s with an embarrassing lack of judgement and self-awareness, as much as with his mother’s remonstrations of Ron’s “filthy impure thoughts” for purchasing a Playboy, or the sledgehammer divide between Tommy (Josh Evans) singing Dylan and mom preaching that “Communism has to be stopped”. However accurate this may be, it plays as borderline caricature (Stone attests in Chasing the Light that Kovic “was a true believer” – a practising Catholic who responded to Kennedy’s call – and notes he didn’t get Stone’s sarcasm when they collaborated on the screenplay). Particularly so when he splashes Moon River over the soundtrack and has Ron dash to the prom to clinch with Donna (Kyra Sedgwick), in a scene James Park (in the Film Yearbook Volume 9) observed “seems plucked from another movie”. Except that, in this movie, it’s just another maxed moment.
Curiously, Stone’s autobiography addresses exactly the movie’s problem, but he acts as if it results from Kovic’s character, rather than the director’s own bombastic sensibility: “One couldn’t make everything in a movie hyper; proportion was necessary. But what else could Ron be?” Stone originally attempted to make Born on the Fourth of July more than a decade earlier, albeit as writer for hire. Martin Bregman optioned the book for Al Pacino in 1976. Stone initially resisted, and he only felt he had a grip on the material after meeting Kovic: “I realised here was the story – a tortured monument of a human being right in front of my eyes”.
William Friedkin came aboard as director, and would then drop out – Stone speculates he perhaps knew financing wouldn’t pan out – with Dan Petrie coming in; there were reports Pacino lost confidence in Petrie (given the director’s filmography, I’m not entirely surprised), but there was also the factor that Pacino was simply too old for the part. Stone, let down by the experienced, made Kovic a vow: “‘Ron, if I ever make it in this business, I’ll come back and make this damn movie!’ Ron always remembered that and reminded me years later. To him, it became prophetic. To me, it was a dead weight”.
Perhaps something of that dead weight persists in the picture, for all that Stone attests it was about Kovic. Perhaps it’s simply the way the biographical genre works, reducing everything to points on a chart from A to Z, but the problem with punching everything up is that the entire movie feels schematic, the way biopics tend to, and means it has structure, yet no real flow or depth. There are times when you are involved, in an immediate way, but others where, swept along by Williams’ bowdlerising score, Kovic feels like a passenger on his own journey. Park suggested that, for Stone, the character becomes “a peg on which to hang his invective”, and when you compare him to the likes of Jims Morrison or Garrison, you see a similarly opportunistic mode of presenting a take on a period where the protagonist becomes part of the furniture.
What’s interesting about this is that, rather like Morrison, Stone’s hero doesn’t especially come across as a sympathetic character. Some have suggested that’s a by-product of the director’s focus elsewhere. But given it has happened with some consistency in his movies, it suggests a degree of self-reflection imposing itself whenever he attacks a protagonist. Critics at the time found themselves calling out Kovic’s naivety: Park argued that Stone never really answered “why did this boy believe in those lies, and why, given that he volunteered for military service, should we feel as sorry for him as he does for himself?” Pauline Kael meanwhile wondered “Was this kid kept in a bubble? At some point, everybody knows about the ugliness of war… He’s presented as a credulous boy whose country lied to him (actually, he comes across as wilfully blind to what’s going on)”.
Kael felt the picture was neither about Nam nor even war in general, but rather “Ron’s emotional need to make people acknowledge what he has lost… a shrill, demanding child inside the activist…” Actually, I rather think the movie’s about – as all the director’s period epics are – embracing a period when he felt was alive, vital. When, whatever else was going on, there was hope and possibility, hence the inescapable nostalgia, regardless of the starker specifics of the subject matter.
But Kael wasn’t wrong when she observed “I don’t think I’ve ever seen an epic about a bad loser”. Actually, though, given this and then The Doors, Stone beating down his leads/heroes is either a conscious or subconscious thing. And can it be a coincidence that this was simply the latest in a string of Cruise characters that are essentially unsympathetic, thick headed and/or cocky, who learn the hard way, if they learn at all (Top Gun, The Color of Money, Cocktail, Rain Man)?
While Stone undoubtedly structures Born on the Fourth of July in favour of redemption/salvation (the confessional, followed by the stirring Williams fade-in as Kovic arrives at the Republican Convention), it seems to me those problems of motivation/psyche Park and Kael had are ones explicitly intended by the picture. Hence the way in which Kovic is called out at every turn, be it by younger family members more aware than he is, school friends who know better than to go to war, veterans (Frank Whalley’s Timmy) who know a mire of guilt will solve nothing, or veterans (from WWII) who tell him what an insufferable little shit he is. When Park complains it isn’t clear why Kovic becomes an activist, I rather think it is: because a girl persuaded him to (we will later see him fall effortlessly for a prostitute who provides job satisfaction).
Kael also roasted Cruise’s performance, and some of her specifics are entirely valid: “Cruise has the right All-American boy look for his role here, but you wait for something to emerge, and realise the look goes all the way through. He has a little-boy voice and no depth of emotion… he’s negligible. Nothing he does is unexpected”.* And yet, one of the things the movie gets right is casting him. Sure, there’s a sense that Sedgwick would make a more formidable marine, and the criticisms of the hair and makeup department are entirely legit – “He disappears inside Ron Kovic’s receding hairline, Fu Manchu moustache and long, matted hair” – but Stone’s reasoning is clear, precise and judicious in his choice of leading man: “I saw this kid who has everything,” he stated. “And I wondered what would happen if tragedy strikes, if fortune denies him … I thought it was an interesting proposition: What would happen to Tom Cruise if something goes wrong?”
That sense makes the movie work, and ensures it remains something of an anomaly in Cruise’s resumé (I mean, you might include Vanilla Sky, but… well, not really). There are times here where fake Tom is very evident – that learned laugh when he and Timmy are reminiscing in his parents’ backyard – but there are others, notably the piss-and-shit paraplegic desperation, where you see the dedicated side of the actor, the one who will jump out of planes fifty times to get a stunt right.
Tom’s very good at playing a shallow narcissist, so something of the response to it being undercut here is actually cogent. Even the scene that earned Stone criticism – the made-up one of Kovic seeking atonement from the family of the man he shot – adds something cogent to the character we have seen. He “earns” a kind of forgiveness, yet the man who pushes himself to go there isn’t one with any true empathy for a family who may wish the lie they believe to be left undisturbed. They don’t thank him for that rude awakening; it’s only Kovic who goes away feeling better about himself.
There are passages Stone delivers with complete assuredness. Doing Nam combat again may have been a bit like Spielberg returning to Indy (there’s even less in Heaven and Earth), but the sequence is unsurprisingly riveting, assured, distinctive: a succession of scenes of controlled mayhem (and he notably takes the opportunity to provide an entirely contrasting setting to Platoon’s). When Cruise curses that he’s been “staring at my own vomit for two fucking hours”, some might have compared that to the movie itself, but as luxuriating in misery as this section is, there are pearls (“I want my leg. It’s my leg!”) Stone completely gets the awful queasiness of Ron’s return to the family home, all false smiles and positivity from the veteran. And his later outburst at his prudish mother is very silly but absolutely hilarious: “Don’t say penis is this house”; “Big fucking erect penis!”
After which, it’s a relief to escape to Mexico and the company of reprobate types. Willem Dafoe with his devilish grin is a shot in the arm, and yes, maybe that duelling wheelchairs scene is daft, but it’s got Dafoe in it, so I can readily give it a pass (early on, Berenger is also good as the polar-opposite recruitment sergeant). It also escalates into similar absurdity as the “Penis!” scene: “Maybe I killed a whole bunch of babies!” This section features Michael Wincott and an early Tom Sizemore, the latter before he had any sizeable parts yet looking absolutely as insane as he’d ever be.
Both Park and Kael also drew attention to the importance of nostalgia in Born on the Fourth of July, and retrospectively, this seems to have been Stone’s number one legacy as a moviemaker. Unshackled from his ’60s bedrock, he’s rarely been as powerful or coherent. And prior to his arrival, there’d been nostalgic endeavours – The Big Chill, 1969, Withnail & I – but nothing of an appreciably predictive programming ilk, that would set the era off in a light leading directly to Forrest Gump and onward, most recently to The Trial of the Chicago 7. Kael commented “The counter-culture is presented in a nostalgic, aesthetically reactionary way; it is made part of our certified popular memories”, while Parks suggested it was possible to “locate the relative success of the film in a new nostalgia, no longer for 1950s suburbia, but rather for a time it was possible to believe that waving banners, burning flags and getting oneself arrested would be enough to change the world”.
Stone thus rocks his hippy itch and he’d do it again two years later. Such activity would help congeal realisation that any sense of a society proceeding forward was illusory; in a sense Stone, with his Cliff’s Notes conspiracy mindset, was responsible for shedding a light on the realisation that all levels of global society are dictated and manufactured, albeit this is something he would never publicly countenance. Conspiracy theatre had held currency in movies and TV for a good few decades by this point, but Stone and his indirect offspring The X-Files would embed it as a substrata, perhaps something necessary for the “full disclosure” of the unfolding narrative that finds us where we are now.
Born on the Fourth of July was the director’s second of three efforts yielding nominations for Best Director, Best Picture and Best Writer. As Anthony Holden has it (in The Secret History of Hollywood’s Academy Awards), it was the sheer excess of Stone’s delivery, both within the narrative and outside it, that likely did for his chances. Driving Miss Daisy won out as a consequence of “a political backlash against Stone’s film”, and Stone fell back on the weak swill that “It was attacked by a poorly motivated right wing. Because it is political, it made a lot of people angry”. Holden suggests more pointedly the same thing Kael and Park expressed, that “they were wearied by the hectoring tone of his films” and suggested its screenplay chances were scuppered by the visiting scene (creating a backlash that “cost Stone, as director and co-writer, a possible clean sweep of the 1989 Oscars”). There was also, of course, the key factor that Driving Miss Daisy was nice, with “no violence and no sex…” And no “Big fucking erect penis!”
Like The Doors, I was more appreciative of Born on the Fourth of July at the time; doubtless, identifying with the general sentiment can go a long way, and at this time, moderately impressionable as I was, I identified with Stone’s general sentiment, along with the second-hand nostalgia for an age that seemed much more legitimately aspirant. To an extent, I still do, but not with receiving such sentiment on the end of a blunderbuss. As Kael observed, “Stone’s movie yells at you for two hours and twenty-five minutes. Stone tells you and he shows you at the same time; everything is swollen with meaning”. She also acutely distinguished Born on the Fourth of July from earlier results (Salvador springs to mind): “You can’t even enjoy his uncouthness, because it’s put at the service of sanctimony”. Or what Park termed his determination to turn it “into a tale of moral redemption”.
Park further speculated that Born on the Fourth of July’s reception suggested “its success should be ascribed to America’s need for an occasional sermon to assuage national guilt”. Possibly, although the picture actually did markedly better business internationally than at home. On one level, I think the movie is, in part, an interestingly unforgiving paean to the man. But it can’t escape that Stone makes everything so heightened that the lesser whole becomes almost vapid, brazenly unremarkable. Technically, Born on the Fourth of July is extremely well made, and on that score, the directing Oscar is deserved. But… It’s just too much, the kind of too much that would eventually lead to the self-immolation of Natural Born Killers.
*Addendum 01/09/22: Did Kael know something we didn’t (at the time)? She was ever set on impugning Tom’s masculinity her reviews of the period.
First published by Now in Full Color on 04/02/22.