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Born on the Fourth of July
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Tom Cruise, hot off his success in the previous year’s Rain Man, turns in another excellent dramatic performance in Oliver Stone’s biopic of Ron Kovic. The movie unfolds over a 20-year period, detailing Kovic's childhood, his Vietnam military service, which left him paralyzed, and his transition into an anti-war activist. Stone, one of the least subtle filmmakers in the history of the medium, is able to find a bit more depth and nuance in telling Kovic’s story than he achieved in his semi-autobiographical Vietnam War drama Platoon (1986). And Cruise gives a relentless, deeply effecting performance in the lead role. Even those who can’t stand the cocky, almost laughably driven style of acting Cruise brings to all his roles have to acknowledge how good he can be when playing within his wheelhouse, such as in his previous pictures Taps (1981), All the Right Moves (1983), and Risky Business (1983). But in Born on the Forth of July, Cruise succeeds playing outside of his comfort zone; taking real chances and exploring a wider range of emotions than he’d called on before.

Stone and Kovic where reluctant to consider him for this film—both hated Top Gun (1986), the movie that made Cruise a mega star and that Stone called a fascist piece of military recruitment propaganda. But Stone was intrigued by the idea of casting this golden boy who seemed to have it all in a story about a promising kid whose body and mind are torn up and permanently damaged by wartime experience. The film’s depictions of combat, the fog of war, and the horrendous conditions at military hospitals are brief but harrowing. These sequences and the apt depiction of ‘60s era America that Kovic returned to, provide enough context for us to understand how this ultra patriotic kid could become so disillusioned about the country that sent him to fight.

Born on the Fourth of July was largely embraced by critics and audiences, sweeping the Golden Globes and scoring Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Editing, and Best Original Score (Stone won his second Oscar for directing while David Brenner, and Joe Hutshing won Oscars for editing). But this was also the point when many in Hollywood and Washington stopped praising everything Stone made and began to question his talent and motivations. Many film writers found the film facile and manipulative—valid critiques for all of Stones prior work, especially the laughably awful Wall Street (1987)—and many right-wing politicians like Pat Buchanan called Stone out for deviating from Kovic’s book to paint him as some kind of angel. Kovic considered a run for Congress fueled by all the attention he got as a result of the film, but ultimately decided against it. 

Twitter Capsule:
Telling the story of Ron Kovic, the ultra-patriotic young man who became an anti-war activist after his Vietnam military service left him paralyzed, Stone finds more depth and nuance than he achieved in his semi-autobiographical Vietnam War drama Platoon, and Cruise delivers a sympathetic performance.

Directed by Oliver Stone
Produced by Oliver Stone and A. Kitman Ho

Screenplay by Oliver Stone and Ron Kovic
Based on the book by Ron Kovic

With: Tom Cruise, Kyra Sedgwick, Raymond J. Barry, Caroline Kava, Josh Evans, Frank Whaley, Jerry Levine, Rob Camilletti, Stephen Baldwin, Daniel Baldwin, William Baldwin, Tom Berenger, Willem Dafoe, John Getz, Cordelia González, Vivica A. Fox, James LeGros, William Mapother, Lili Taylor, Eagle Eye Cherry, John C. McGinley, Ron Kovic, Oliver Stone, and Abbie Hoffman

Cinematography: Robert Richardson
Editing: David Brenner and Joe Hutshing
Music: John Williams

Runtime: 145 min
Release Date: 20 December 1989
Aspect Ratio: 2.35 : 1