Oliver Stone made three war films in the '80s: Salvador, about a journalist embedded in Guatemala during its civil war, Platoon, which trails American soldiers in the jungles of Vietnam and looks at life through combat, and Born on the Fourth of July. The latter depicts the horrors of war that spill onto the home front when soldiers return to greet an ambivalent populace and are cruelly mistreated and abandoned. Stone is a filmmaker unafraid to mix politics and entertainment, and his adaptation of Vietnam War veteran Ron Kovic's autobiography, with Tom Cruise in the lead, is a searing condemnation of the United States supplemented with Stone's own memories of combat in Vietnam. Born on the Fourth of July is one of the director's finest films, full of rage, desperation and humor, and buoyed by a fine performance from Cruise.
Kovic (Cruise) has an idyllic American childhood in Massapequa, New York, before becoming an All-American high school athlete. The words of President John F. Kennedy and a desire to repay his conceived debt to America drive Kovic to enlist in the Marine Corps. During his second tour in Vietnam, Kovic is horrified by atrocities committed by American soldiers on the Vietnamese villagers, and later shoots a young Marine during battle in an incident of friendly fire. Months later, Kovic is badly wounded and paralyzed from his mid-chest down. He is sent home to a country that no longer supports the war, and is stuck at the Bronx Veterans Hospital in appalling, inhuman conditions. The money has dried up and the doctors and orderlies seem unconcerned as wounded soldiers suffer and die at the hospital. Kovic falls and breaks his leg while trying to walk with crutches, and sends months immobilized rather than allowing doctors to amputate the appendage. When Kovic finally makes it home, people treat him differently. His younger brothers champion peace and love over war, his religious mother is overcome with grief, and old friends want to use Kovic as a powerful anti-war image.
Platoon is something of a prequel to Born on the Fourth of July, as it depicts the horror, adrenaline and camaraderie of war. Much of this evaporates when soldiers return home, and they are replaced by loneliness. Kovic is remarkably strong throughout his recovery, and only when faced with losing his leg does he plead with hospital staff to treat him like a human being. He tries to grin and bear it for family and friends, but picks up the bottle and becomes increasingly volatile. Kovic visits high school crush Donna (Kyra Sedgwick) at college, and unwittingly is thrust into a Vietnam protest. Only fellow veteran Timmy Burns (Frank Whaley) is able to speak with Kovic intimately about things that happened in Vietnam. Things get so bad at home that Kovic leaves on an extended trip to rural Mexico.
As in Platoon, Stone allows his own experiences in Vietnam to permeate Born on the Fourth of July. Kovic's initial, unfailing patriotism does not mix well with an agitated America. Stone intimately knows the vitriol hurled at Vietnam vets upon their return, and even Kovic's friends decry his service. Mexico is a haven for Kovic and other veterans to escape condemnation, and Kovic meets another wheelchair-bound veteran, Charlie (Willem Dafoe), in a brothel. So much is denied the young Kovic, and his first intimate experience with a woman is incapable of bringing him satisfaction. After Mexico, the film shifts to show Kovic and other veterans fighting to regain respect in America during the 1972 Republican National Convention, where Richard Nixon is nominated for president. Born on the Fourth of July beats Kovic down before building him back up. Despite its weighty themes, the film is consistently entertaining, and clocks in at a well-paced 145 minutes. Cruise goes all in for his performance, and really sells the character in each period of his life. Stone's direction is confident, and Born on the Fourth of July is never overwrought. Honest and expertly crafted, Born on the Fourth of July is Stone at his fiery best.
Universal's Blu-ray catalog titles have been inconsistent at best, but I'm happy to report that Born on the Fourth of July, presented with a 2.35:1/1080p/VC-1-encoded transfer, looks good in high definition. The early scenes of Kovic's childhood are purposely grainy with subdued colors, and feel like they are unspooling from a freshly minted 35mm print. Colors are boosted and the grain retreats as Kovic travels to Vietnam, where the transfer handles the high-contrast landscapes with ease. Detail is impressive throughout, from the beads of sweat on the Marines' faces in war to the lettering on protest banners to the squalor of the Bronx hospital. Colors are well saturated and can be quite striking, particularly during a sunbaked firefight in Vietnam. Black levels are solid and crush is minimal, and aliasing is kept mostly at bay. If any digital sharpening was done here it was done very sparingly, as the film's grain structure remains intact, and faces never appear waxy or smeared.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is nicely mixed for war. Dialogue is clear and crisp, and the track includes a fair amount of directional dialogue, particularly in busier scenes. Action effects are quite bombastic and make good use of the surround speakers and LFE. Ambient effects are also present during scenes of war and protest, and the film's score and popular-music soundtrack come through rich and deep. Born on the Fourth of July sounds quite modern, particularly when compared with Platoon, which was released just three years earlier. Spanish and French 5.1 DTS tracks are also available, as are English SDH, French and Spanish subtitles.
PACKAGING AND EXTRAS:
Born on the Fourth of July arrives as part of Universal's 100th Anniversary Collection, and the set includes the Blu-ray, a copy of the previous special edition DVD and iTunes/Vudu/Amazon Instant Video digital copies of the film. The discs are housed in a standard Blu-ray case, which is wrapped in a glossy slipcover with a flap that opens to reveal information about the film and Universal Studios in 1989.
The Blu-ray carries over the Audio Commentary with Director Oliver Stone from earlier releases. As usual, Stone records an excellent track, full of information about the production, his service during the Vietnam War, working with Ron Kovic, and the legacy of the film. From the NBC News Archives - Backstory: Born on the Fourth of July (21:37/SD) is a primetime piece about the film hosted by Bryant Gumbel that features interviews with Kovic, Stone and Cruise. Universal also includes two anniversary featurettes: 100 Years of Universal: Academy Award Winners (9:35/HD) and 100 Years of Universal: The '80s (15:03/HD). The latter is more interesting, and provides a succinct look at the studio's hits during the decade. Universal also throws in its My Scenes Bookmarking Feature and D-BOX Motion Code.
Oliver Stone's Born on the Fourth of July is a tremendous film, and is simultaneously a harsh appraisal of United States policy during the Vietnam war and a portrait of one Marine's sacrifice during the conflict. Tom Cruise portrays Ron Kovic, whose memoir is the basis for the film, a wounded and paralyzed soldier who returns to a country short on sympathy. Stone's film is entertaining and impactful, and depicts the horrors of war that follow veterans home. Born on the Fourth of July receives a solid transfer and soundtrack for its Blu-ray debut. Highly Recommended
William lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, and looks forward to a Friday-afternoon matinee.