Born on the Fourth of July
This overblown yet harrowing film version of Ron Kovic’s 1976 memoir offers Tom Cruise in full propagandistic effect, a major star who believed in Oliver Stone and in the project (would he, or any other comparable star, do anything like this film today?). Cruise plays Kovic as a gung-ho kid who went off to Vietnam with visions of John Wayne dancing in his head, and came home a bitter paraplegic. Stone covers Kovic’s disillusionment, deterioration, and resurrection without actually telling us much about him. Kovic is meant to function as a cipher, a representative of the audience, both a cautionary tale and a rebellious hero. He’s also, of course, a metaphor for how America itself lost its innocence in Vietnam and found out, like Kovic, that it wasn’t the toughest guy on the block and that God wasn’t necessarily in the foxhole with us.
Stone is often too obvious in his approach (when isn’t he?), crafting a few speeches that make you want to throw things at the screen. But the basic core is powerful enough to transcend most of the flaws, and Cruise comes through with an edgy, furious performance. (Pauline Kael panned his work in this film, apparently because she had a pathological aversion to Cruise — who perhaps does deserve to be panned in some of his smiley-face performances, but not here.) As if to cement this film’s status as the middle film in Stone’s Vietnam trilogy, Tom Berenger (as an Army recruiter) and Willem Dafoe (as a burned-out wheelchair-bound vet) pop in for cameos. Other interesting appearances include Abbie Hoffman (who had died by the time this came out), Stone himself, Edie Brickell, and Kovic as the vet riding his wheelchair during a parade — he flinches at the sound of a firecracker.