"All I'm saying is, I just want to be treated like a human being!"
In promotional interviews he gave back in 1989, Oliver Stone likened the difference between Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July to the progression from The Iliad to The Odyssey. It's an apt comparison. The former details the experience of war, both the glory and the horror, from the heart of battle itself, while the latter shows us that the warrior's journey home can be just as difficult. Despite its position in the director's Vietnam trilogy, Born on the Fourth of July spends very little time in combat or in the Southeast Asian region. The bulk of the story takes place right in the U.S.A., which at the time was almost as contentious a battlefield.
Tom Cruise delivers one his best performances in the true story of Ron Kovic, a red-blooded, Patriotic kid from Massapequa NY who joined the Marine Corps straight out of high school to serve his country, as his father and grandfather had before him. Raised with a competitive spirit and a strong sense of duty, Kovic was eager to claim his place in a major historic conflict, and looked down on his cowardly friends who were staying home to attend college, missing out on a chance at glory. Of course, the reality of war was not quite the glamorous crusade he'd envisioned as a child playing soldiers with the other neighborhood kids. Forced to witness and participate in horrific, traumatizing events, he eventually takes a bullet to the chest that will leave him paralyzed for life.
After surviving the gruesome emergency medical tent and enduring the sickening conditions of a VA hospital back in the Bronx, Kovic is sent home to Massapequa in a wheelchair, only to find his family unsure how to act around him, and his friends all moved on with their lives. Taken into the military right out of boyhood, he never experienced a proper transition to adult life, and is left unsure what to do with himself, especially now that he feels so helpless without the use of his legs. Still a proud American boy, he continues to support the war at first, snearing at the hippie protestors he demands should "Love it or leave it!" But depression soon sets in, and all the booze he drinks doesn't exactly make him feel better about himself. Finally driven from home by his abused parents, Ron quickly hits rock bottom. While rebuilding his life and trying to make amends, Kovic would come to oppose the war, finding his purpose by joining the very protestors he once despised, and by becoming a key voice in the nation's dissent.
Oliver Stone has always been an unabashedly political filmmaker, and no topic has incensed his passions more than Vietnam. Platoon reflected his own experiences in the war, and Ron Kovic's story allowed him to vent his furor over the mistreatment of veterans returning from combat, who were both neglected by the government and victims of the public's misdirected anger. More than just a political broadside, however, the film is also a harrowing, emotional journey from naiveté to righteous indignation, Kovic's progress mirroring the nation's own. It's an important, enlightening story, perhaps even more relevant now than when the movie was made, and Stone dramatizes it with searing and incendiary conviction. Born on the Fourth of July is a great film from a talented director at his peak, and a tremendous work of art.
The HD DVD:
Born on the Fourth of July has been released on the HD DVD format by Universal Studios Home Entertainment. The interactive menus are accompanied by annoying beeping sound effects for every selection that can be turned off if you desire (and I recommend it). If you should pause or fast-forward/rewind the movie during playback, a timeline meter will appear on screen to tell you how far along you are.
HD DVD discs are only playable in a compatible HD DVD player. They will not function in a standard DVD player (unless the disc is a Combo release that specifically includes a secondary DVD version) or in a Blu-Ray player. Please note that the star rating scales for video and audio are relative to other High Definition disc content, not to traditional DVD.
The Born on the Fourth of July HD DVD is encoded on disc in High Definition 1080p format using VC-1 compression. The movie is presented in its theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 with letterbox bars at the top and bottom of the 16:9 frame.
This is a film that's had a particularly checkered history on home video. It was released no less than four times on DVD, three of them recycling the same cruddy non-anamorphic letterbox transfer that was grainy as hell and plagued by disgusting amounts of edge enhancement. Finally a decent anamorphic transfer arrived in 2004, and now we have this very nice HD DVD.
Universal has taken a lot of criticism recently for churning out catalog titles on HD DVD using older High Definition masters that don't hold up well to current standards. Born on the Fourth of July is a fortunate exception, as it looks quite good indeed. The image has strong detail and depth (especially in crowd shots), as well as vivid colors. The opening flashback scenes are deliberately grainy, and admittedly the grain seems a little too noisy there, but things largely clear up at the transition to Kovic's high school years and beyond. The picture remains mildly grainy through much of the movie, but other than the prologue the rest of it looks fine.
Edge enhancement was thick and heavy on the old DVDs. There's a tiny bit of ringing in some of the Vietnam scenes here, but it's been vastly reduced overall and isn't severe enough to put up a fuss about. The contrast range appears a little tweaked, crushing some detail on both the high and low ends, but that's consistent with cinematographer Robert Richardson's usual style. Whites do bloom a bit much in some scenes, however, which can give the picture an undesired video-ish appearance. Nonetheless, this is a pleasing transfer and certainly the best I've ever seen Born on the Fourth of July presented.
The Born on the Fourth of July HD DVD is not flagged with an Image Constraint Token and will play in full High Definition quality over an HD DVD player's analog Component Video outputs.
The movie's soundtrack is provided in Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 format. Fidelity of the audio mix is a little dated, but the film has a very good sound design. John William's score has expansive presence. The crackle of machine guns and rumble of explosions come through crisply. Surround use is subdued but effective. Nothing mind-blowing here, but a solid, satisfying effort.
Subs & Dubs:
Optional subtitles - English captions for the hearing impaired or French.
Alternate language tracks - French DD+ 2.0.
The bonus features on this HD DVD title are duplicated from the Special Edition DVD released in 2004. What we get is good, but there's not a lot available.
- Audio Commentary by Writer/Director Oliver Stone - As always, Stone delivers an intelligent, soft-spoken discussion of his themes, intentions, and a healthy amount of technical information (including specifically mentioning his choice of aspect ratio and the complications that caused for him). Interesting trivia: the script was originally written back in 1978 as a starring vehicle for Al Pacino with William Friedkin to direct; that early attempt was scrapped two days before production when financing backed out; and, when the project was finally relaunched years later, the studio had doubts about Tom Cruise being able to carry such a weighty movie due to his lack of heavy dramatic experience.
- From the NBC News Archives - Backstory: Born on the Fourth of July (22 min., SD) - A vintage newsmagazine piece about the movie featuring Bryant Gumbel interviews with Ron Kovic, Oliver Stone, and Tom Cruise.
A great film more relevant now than ever, Born on the Fourth of July makes its way to HD DVD with excellent picture and sound, as wells as a couple of pretty good bonus features. Highly recommended.
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