It's also a deeply personal story about a wounded veteran of that war, who, as a teenager, inspired by the inaugural presidential address given by then-U.S. President John F. Kennedy in January of 1961 ("Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country"), eagerly volunteers with the United States Marine Corps immediately upon graduation from high school and embarks on a tour of duty in Vietnam, is injured - becoming a paraplegic paralyzed from the mid-chest down - comes home, recovers in a decrepit veteran's hospital, reconnects with his family and community, and after a lengthy period of disenchantment and despair, becomes an out-spoken anti-war activist.
"Born on the Fourth of July" is based on the real-life story of Ron Kovic, that wounded Vietnam War veteran who became a prominent anti-war demonstrator after his time in the war and a voice for disenchanted war veterans and peace activists everywhere; it's based on his best-selling 1976 autobiographical book of the same name. Kovic famously won an Oscar and a Golden Globe for the film's screenplay (co-written with Oliver Stone, also a Vietnam vet himself), the latter of which was received 22 years later to the day that he was wounded in Vietnam. "Born on the Fourth of July" could be considered a follow-up of sorts to Stone's earlier Best Picture Oscar-Winner "Platoon" (1986); in fact, "Born on the Fourth of July" was at one point pitched AS a sequel to "Platoon."
And somewhere in there, too, "Born on the Fourth of July" captures what is very easily the best performance of its young star, a then-27-year-old Tom Cruise, who was best-known at the time for several high-profile leading roles in big-budget Hollywood blockbusters from earlier in the decade, including "Risky Business" (1983), "The Color of Money" (1986), "Cocktail" (1988), "Rain Man" (1988) and of course his most famous movie up to that time, 1986's mega-hit "Top Gun." But these roles - even the previous year's Best Picture Oscar-Winner "Rain Man" - had mainly focused on Cruise's "all-American boy" good looks and inherent screen charm, and people (Stone and Kovic included) were initially very weary of whether or not he could truly carry a film like "Born on the Fourth of July" - a film with some enormous dramatic weight and history attached to it.
And Tom Cruise delivered - he got an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor and won a Golden Globe Award for the same category for his performance in the film. Both were richly deserved, and Cruise from then on would be considered a "serious" actor who could move effortlessly between critically acclaimed dramatic ("serious") roles and large-scale big-budget Hollywood blockbusters.
In many ways, Cruise was utterly perfect for the embittered Ron Kovic because it also allowed him to deconstruct his own popular image. (It has also been reported by some sources that one of the reasons Tom Cruise accepted the part was because he was acting on the advice of late film legend Paul Newman - his co-star from "The Color of Money" - who had convinced him to take the part in order to counter the uber-jingoistic image of his performance in "Top Gun.") He starts out as a young, handsome-looking, idealistic, high school athlete superstar and small-town hero (his hometown of Massapequa on Long Island, New York) - but by film's end and now confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life due to injuries sustained on the battlefield, he is a completely different person, angry, cynical, hot-tempered, embittered, and feeling betrayed by the country he loves so much and sacrificed his body and spirit for. That "all-American boy" charm gets lost over the course of "Born on the Fourth of July's" 145-minute running time, and we believe it.
In short, it's the role that Tom Cruise was born to play.
Oliver Stone, who also served in Vietnam, shaped a movie that captured the pain, agony, and overwhelming sense of betrayal that many wounded (psychologically, not just physically) Vietnam War veterans surely felt after coming home to a country that was now so radically different from the country that they had known before - and also seemed to have forgotten them, turned its back on them, or left them behind completely. Stone's opinions on the war are also well-known to both his critics and anyone who's followed his career over the decades - but his film is not propaganda and never goes off in the many wild directions that it very easily could have. It's simply a portrait of a wounded man who is stripped of his youthful idealism and cradle-born values by the trauma of war, and finds a new purpose for his life by speaking and acting out against war in order to prevent the creation of other wounded young men like himself.
"Born on the Fourth of July" is a challenging and angry film. It is unflinching in its scenes of graphic battlefield combat - influenced by Stone's earlier "Platoon," no doubt - as well as an America that is changing, socially, morally and politically, as the hope, dreams, and values of a bygone era give way to the burning anger, cynicism, and uncertainty of a new one as the angry voices on all sides (know-nothing anti-war demonstrators, self-serving politicians, the neglected vets themselves, and everyday Americans) fight for control of America's destiny and soul. "Born on the Fourth of a July" is a film that took 13 years to make - from the time of publication of Kovic's book in 1976 to the film's release in December of 1989 - and its love-labor is apparent every step of the way. The teaming of Oliver Stone and Ron Kovic was an inspired partnership borne of their shared experiences on the battlefields of Vietnam; in some ways, it is as much Stone's story as it Kovic's. We, as Americans, owe them a sincere and heartfelt thanks, and an apology for the hell that they were put through almost 50 years ago.
Happy Birthday, Ron Kovic. We owe you our thanks.