In "Born on the Fourth of July's" best scene, young, wheelchair-bound Ron Kovic and another traumatically wounded Vietnam War vet sit in the dark of Kovic's back yard, drinking a liberating number of beers and remembering high school classmates who've been killed--already, in the early years of the war.
For the first time with someone who speaks the same language, the two men joke irreverently about the fate--and the stupidity--that got one buddy blown up by a land mine and another pair of twins killed.
In this casually profane byplay, Kovic comes alive, almost for the first time. Before this, Tom Cruise, who plays him with previously untapped eloquence, has had virtually no chance to dig in and show us the real man. In director Oliver Stone's extended prologue, we've seen Kovic as a youngster, playing war in the Massapequa, N.Y., woods; as a driven high school athlete; as a star-crossed high-school lover and as one of the few good men the Marine Corps was looking for. He's been turned into an idealized figure in Stone's furious moral lesson on the macho American mentality that led us to Vietnam.
No one can doubt Stone's sincerity, any more than they can his talent for bravura emotionalism. But when his film needs to lower its voice and make crucial points clear, like the issues behind Kovic's political transformation, Stone turns up the volume and blasts over any such pantywaist distinctions. It turns "Fourth of July" into passionate pyrotechnics; you gasp as they go off, but they touch your emotions, not your mind.
Stone is a punishing director, never more so when he deals with Vietnam, clearly one of the central experiences of his life. In his deeply moving, tightly focused "Platoon," he was able to re-create that war so personally that its sounds, its dangers, its terrifying randomness came alive to every audience.
With "Born on the Fourth of July" (Cineplex Odeon, Century City), he is dealing with a wider time frame, the mid-'50s through the Vietnam War and the birth of the anti-war movement. His trickier challenge is to convey one veteran's political journey from right-wing patriot to anti-war activist and his private journey from inchoate rage to a modicum of peace. However, possibly because Stone empathizes so enormously with co-writer Kovic, who came back from Vietnam at the age of 21 paralyzed from the chest down, the director has lost the specificity that made "Platoon" so electrifying. In its place he uses bombast, overkill, bullying. His scenes, and their ironic juxtapositioning, explode like land mines.
The explosions do their job. One would have to be granite not to be moved by these painful sequences. Kovic's Vietnam action is a maelstrom of confusion and accident, where civilian women and babies are maimed and destroyed and where he mortally wounds a fellow Marine. The actuality of this field hospital is a scene from hell, not "MASH." And there is the purgatory of Kovic's Bronx VA hospital, an overtaxed, filthy, rat-ridden facility. Quieter moments have their own tension: the happy-face surface of his return home and the repression underneath. But because we never know the characters except as symbols, and because Stone pulls out all the stops almost all the time, he undermines the story he wishes so fervently to tell.
He has chosen his central figure well, however. Cruise is not deep and you never catch a watchful intelligence lurking in his eyes. Playing Kovic may require other priorities: fierce physicality, empathy and the ability to work full throttle for virtually every scene. Cruise delivers all that and a quality of defenselessness that is terribly touching.
But just how do you build a "Yankee Doodle boy," a love-it-or-leave-it patriot? From "Fourth of July" we learn that it was his devout, repressed-hysteric mother (Caroline Kava) who fed young Ron every jingoistic message. The script makes her prescient as well; watching Kennedy's inaugural address, she tells little Ronnie that in her dream, he was making a speech too, and everyone was listening. Then, as though we weren't listening, Stone plays her dream-prediction again at the film's end, just as he is about to speak, thus making an otherwise tactful closing scene overstated and obvious.
Perhaps this is just what Kovic's mother said. Perhaps she also told him, as she does here, that it was God's will that he should go and fight the communists. But the direction of Kava has turned her into a looming Mom From Hell. She was subtle and fine as Mickey Rourke's murdered wife in "Year of the Dragon."
And still to come is the nightmare of a scene in which the drunk, tortured Kovic confronts his mother with the blood on his conscience and his howling fury at his impotence. Aghast, she shrieks, "Don't you dare say penis in this house!," causing him to scream nothing but that word for what seems like eons. This is quintessential Oliver Stone; it's also patently unplayable. (Language like this and the film's extremely realistic battle and hospital scenes give it its R rating.)
In the film's 2 hours and 25 minutes, there seems to be warfare on the screen every 15 minutes: in Vietnam, then at home in intra-family dissension between Kovic and an anti-war younger brother, then between Kovic and his mother. There's a surreal sort of war in Mexico when Kovic, desperately trying to regain his manhood, takes refuge in a small village whose neighboring brothel caters to disabled men. Here, he butts heads and wheelchairs with fellow vet Willem Dafoe. In this vast cast, only Dafoe, Kava, Frank Whaley from the back-yard scene and Josh Evans as Kovic's younger activist brother have a chance to stand out.
Then there are the political wars: campus protests after Kent State, melees at the Republican convention at Miami Beach, where a thoroughly radicalized Kovic now leads a group of vets in protesting Nixon's acceptance speech in Miami Beach in 1972. The screen is a virtual battleground and you leave the theater battered in the onslaught.
You may not leave it feeling you know Ron Kovic, however. You have met him, suffered with him, shuddered at his pain, hoped that he would find a modicum of peace. But know him? Unfortunately for us, such crucial introductions are not Oliver Stone's strong suit.
'BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY'
A Universal Pictures presentation of an A. Kitman Ho & Ixtlan production of an Oliver Stone picture. Producers Ho, Stone. Director Stone. Screenplay by Stone, Ron Kovic, based on the book by Kovic. Camera Robert Richardson. Production design Bruno Rubeo. Editor David Brenner. Co-editor Joe Hutshing. Music John Williams. Costumes Judy Ruskin. Associate producers Clayton Townsend, Joseph Reidy. Sound Tod A. Maitland. Art directors Victor Kempster, Richard L. Johnson. With Tom Cruise, Raymond J. Barry, Caroline Kava, Josh Evans, Frank Whaley, Kyra Sedgwick, Jerry Levine, Willem Dafoe.
Running time: 2 hour, 25 minutes.
MPAA-rated: R (younger than 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian).