“When people say if you don’t love America, then get the hell out. Well, I love America, but when it comes to the government, it stops right there.” – Ron Kovic
Oliver Stone’s filmic prescience is widely regarded by critics, students and the public at large. It hit is apex with 1989’s Born on the Fourth of July, a cinematic crystal ball, which anticipated the rise of Donald Trump’s divisive “Make America Great Again” nationalism. Stone’s biopic traces the life of Ron Kovic (Tom Cruise), from his beginnings as the quintessential all-American boy proud eager to serve the country he loves and respects in the Vietnam War, to being a disillusioned veteran, paralyzed in battle and how it led to his anti-war activism. This film asks particularly difficult questions about what it means to be American and has become even more relevant today than the year it was released to critical and commercial success.
Ron Kovic’s voiceover narration establishes a picturesque childhood, he and his best friends play soldiers with other neighborhood kids. He grows up in the Norman Rockwell-esque small town America of the 1950s. Born on the Fourth of July is propaganda – but all is not what it appears; Stone cleverly subverts it, showing us little cracks in the idyllic façade. As a child, Ron idolizes the soldiers he sees with his family in a parade early on in the film. This is tempered when one soldier visibly winces at the sound of firecrackers and another is shown, arms lost in battle, a grim look on his face.
Stone’s multi-layered patriotic imagery during the opening credits sequence is bathed in a sun-kissed glow, courtesy of Robert Richardson’s stunning cinematography. Ron’s mother (Caroline Kava) even calls him her “little Yankee Doodle Boy.” This is the land of 4th of July fireworks, parades populated by beautiful cheerleaders and where Ron is an exceptional athlete, hitting an in-the-park home run as a boy. He lives in suburbia with a family that embodies the American Dream.
As a teenager, he excels in wrestling, being pushed to his limits by a coach whom has all the zeal of an army drill sergeant. It is in these early scenes that we see the Tom Cruise we all know – the ambitious go-getter, but Stone tempers this by showing Ron lose an important match in front of his classmates, friends, and family. His anguished expression – as boos ring out around him –foreshadows more painful defeats to come.
Ron’s hero worship of the military continues when he attends a presentation (a.k.a. a recruitment pitch) by the United States Marines at his school. There is delicious irony as Ron looks adoringly at the Marine speaking (played by none other than Tom Berenger) as if the actor’s demonic soldier from Platoon (1986) somehow survived, returning stateside to recruit young men to fight in the Vietnam War.
Ron buys into it, eager to serve his country as his father (Raymond J. Barry) did before him in World War II. He wants to go and fight in Vietnam and is even willing to die there (“I want to go to Vietnam – and I’ll die there if I have to). His life is playing out like a stereotypical Hollywood movie. He even rushes to the prom, in the rain, to declare his love for girl-next-door-eseque Donna (Kyra Sedgwick) as “Moon River” plays over the gymnasium speakers.
Ron’s idyllic youth comes to a violent end once we see him in ‘Nam, his platoon accidentally slaughtering an entire village. To make matters worse, he inadvertently shoots and kills one of his own soldiers. He tries to own up to it but his superior (John Getz) dismisses him. Where everything stateside was simple to understand – Ron always took for granted that he knew what was expected of him. Vietnam is chaotic and confusing, the enemy difficult to identify. As he did with Platoon, Stone immerses us in the sights and sounds of battle, albeit in a more stylized depiction. Here, he employs more slow-motion, filters, and skewed camera angles to show the disorienting effect of combat through Ron’s eyes.
He is wounded in battle and is shipped back to the Bronx Veterans Hospital where he finds out that he’s been paralyzed from the chest down. Despite the absolutely appalling conditions (rats scurrying between beds, interns shooting up in closets and Ron starring at his own vomit for hours), he still believes in the American Dream and is critical of the anti-war protestors he sees on television. He aggressively attacks physical therapy, refusing to accept the doctor’s diagnosis that he’ll never regain the use of his legs.
Cruise is particularly effective in these scenes as he conveys Ron’s gradual disillusionment with the system. He is slowly becoming dehumanized by the system that cares little about him. Government cutbacks result in poor conditions and treatment that Stone depicts in unflinching detail. Is this how our country honors those that put everything on the line to serve their country?
Ron’s homecoming is a heart-wrenchingly bittersweet one. On the surface, his family is happy to see him – the heartbreaking emotions swell under the surface, conveyed in his mother’s eyes when she embraces him, giving a brief, sad look that he is unable to see. While his father goes on about the changes he’s made to the bathroom to make it more accessible for his son, Ron only half-listens as he looks around his old bedroom, lingering on a photograph of himself during his wrestling days at high school. Stone shows Ron’s image reflected in the glass of the picture frame, visually giving us a before and after of this man’s life.
Ron quickly picks up on how differently people in the town look at him: “Sometimes I think people know you’re back from Vietnam and their face changes, their eyes, the voice, the way they look at you.” A family dinner breaks up when Ron’s brother (Josh Evans) leaves the table, unable to stomach his brother’s patriotic rant. He participates in a parade, much like the one he saw as a child and flinches at the sound of a firecracker, like the veterans he once saw, and this time is faced with angry protestors and other townsfolk; he begins to realize this is not his father’s war.
At the rally afterwards, Ron falters while making a patriotic speech as he experiences a flashback to ‘Nam. Confused, he is “rescued” by childhood friend and fellow veteran Timmy Burns (Frank Whaley). The relief that washes over him at the sight of a familiar face is palpable. The scene between the two men afterwards is quietly affecting as they share stories of their experiences on the battlefield. Timmy tells Ron about the headaches he has – “I don’t feel like me anymore” – and his frustration that the doctors don’t know how to help him. Cruise conveys incredible vulnerability as Ron regrets the mistakes he made in Vietnam, how he feels like a failure, and how badly he wants to regain the ability to walk. This scene features some particularly strong acting from both men, defining moments for both actors and the characters.
I like how Stone spends time showing the moments and events that happen to change Ron’s views of the war. It wasn’t just one incident but a series of them, most significantly an anti-war rally where we can see the change of his way of thinking play over his face. Without warning, cops move in and he watches, helplessly, as they beat protestors. At last, Ron breaks down in his parents’ home, getting into a shouting match with his mother as he finally lets out all of the anger and anguish built up inside him about the war. He’s approaching rock bottom and Cruise conveys Ron’s hurt in a raw and powerful way that is riveting to watch.
It isn’t until he goes to Mexico – in a dust-up with a group of veterans in a bordello – that Ron has an epiphany out in the desert with Charlie (Willem Dafoe), a fellow Vietnam vet. They get into a heated argument about how many babies they killed over there. Afterwards, exhausted, Ron says, “Do you remember things that made sense? Things you could count on before it all got so lost? What am I gonna do, Charlie?” This conversation, combined with visiting the graveside and confessing to the parents of the American soldier he accidentally killed (in a painful, gut-wrenching scene that Cruise gives everything he has), are the pivotal moments that transform him into being an anti-war activist.
When Ron emerges on the floor of the 1972 Republican National Convention in Miami Beach, speaking out against the war and President Nixon administration, Ron has a cathartic moment, finally finding a way to channel his anger and frustration. Once removed from the convention, he’s almost arrested and roughed up, the police giving no consideration for his physical condition. Undaunted, he uses his military training to organize the protestors and continue on in a battle of a different kind.
One month after Ron Kovic gave a speech at the 1976 Democratic Convention, his book about his experiences before, during and after the Vietnam War was reviewed in The New York Times. It drew the attention of movie producer Martin Bregman who bought the rights to the book. He quickly realized that it didn’t have good commercial prospects as the subjects of Vietnam and life as a paraplegic being its focal points. Kovic then served as a consultant on a film about the same subject – Hal Ashby’s Coming Home (1978), starring Jon Voight, who won the Academy Award for his performance. Universal Studios – who were going to finance Born on the Fourth of July – pulled their money and support. No other studio was interested and no one wanted to direct it. All Bregman had was a screenplay written by a young Oliver Stone, who clearly identified with Kovic’s experiences: “My story and that of other vets is subsumed in Ron’s. We experience one war over there then came home and slammed our heads into another war of indifference…and we all came to feel we had made a terrible mistake.”
Bregman found German investors willing to put up money for pre-production, hired Dan Petrie (A Raison in the Sun) to direct, cast Al Pacino as Kovic, with Orion Pictures distributing the film. A few weeks before rehearsals were to begin, the foreign financing fell through and the rights reverted back to Universal. Pacino had second thoughts and left to make …And Justice For All (1979), leaving Bregman $1 million in the hole and Stone depressed, his script without a home. The latter promised Kovic that one day they’d make this film together and became a filmmaker in his own right.
While Stone wrote the script for Wall Street (1987), Tom Pollock, then-president of Universal, took a look at the filmmaker’s script for Born on the Fourth of July and realized, “it was one of the great unmade screenplays of the past 15 years.” He told Stone that the studio would make it for $14 million and a major movie star as Kovic. After making Platoon, Stone considered rewriting a script from 1971 based loosely on his own experiences returning home from Vietnam but put it aside in favor of Kovic’s story, which he felt had broader appeal.
Stone and Kovic considered Sean Penn, Charlie Sheen, Nicolas Cage, and ultimately went with Tom Cruise. Stone met with him and told the actor he needed a movie star to play Kovic and had a small budget to make it. Cruise, who had wanted to work with Stone, accepted the challenge. He was drawn to the film as he felt it was a personal passion project for Stone: “I thought it was almost his life story, too, his Coming Home.”
The young actor identified with Kovic’s working class ethic and his drive to become the best: “I grew up hearing ‘no’s and can’ts’, but I pushed myself forward, always looking ahead so I wouldn’t get stuck.” Stone was drawn to Cruise’s all-American boy image: “I thought it was an interesting proposition: What would happen to Tom Cruise if something goes wrong?” Furthermore, “I sensed with Tom a crack in his background, some kind of unhappiness, that he had seen some kind of trouble. And I thought that trouble could be helpful to him in dealing with the second part of Ron’s life.”
Bregman felt that Cruise was a safe choice and not strong enough an actor for the tough material. Initially, Kovic agreed until he met Cruise: “I felt an instant rapport with him that I never experienced with Pacino.” The two men talked for hours and Kovic got very emotional. He remembered, “I felt like a burden was lifted, that I was passing all this on to Tom. I knew he was about to go to Vietnam, to the dark side, in his own way.” The actor remembers meeting the man he would play on film and how he “really opened up to me.” Cruise knew this would be a daunting role and felt ready after making The Color of Money (1986) with Martin Scorsese and Rain Man (1988) with Barry Levinson. “I made it work one day at a time. If I looked at the mountain, it was just too high.”
Stone wasn’t immediately convinced: “Tom was cocky, sure he could handle everything. But I wasn’t so sure…He was shaky at first, but we shot in continuity as much as possible to show how, step by step, he began to understand.” To prepare for the role, Kovic took Cruise to veterans’ hospitals where he spent days talking and working with paraplegics. He hung out with Kovic in a wheelchair until it became second nature. Cruise also read many books about the war, including Kovic’s diary. Stone brought in his trusted military adviser Dale Dye to work with Cruise and the cast on two separate week-long training missions. Dye remembered that he “treated him no differently than I treated anybody else…A big part of it was, of course, helping Tom Cruise get the mentality he needed for the film.” They had to dig their own foxholes and live in them as well as learn to handle a variety of weapons. Stone also brought in Abbie Hoffman to talk to the cast about the peace movement in the 1960s. The legendary activist even has a cameo in the film.
Principal photography was a grueling 65-day shoot with 15,000 extras and 160 speaking roles. Dallas doubled for both Long Island and Mexico. The production shot 10-12 hours a day in 100-degree heat. At one point, Cruise got sinusitis. Several crew members fainted in the extreme climate. At one point, Stone became quite sick. Focused on the film, he ignored the symptoms until they got in the way of his work. He went to a local hospital in Dallas, underwent a panel of tests and was given medicine. His condition, however, only worsened. The film’s production coordinator called a local physician who had treated other crew members. He recognized Stone’s symptoms as an allergic reaction to a particular kind of pollen common in Dallas at that time of year.
Stone challenged his crew to duplicate Long Island in Dallas on a small budget. Several blocks of houses were given new looks and landscaped to recreate Massapequa, 1957. Principal photography began in October 1988 with the successful transformation of a southeast section of the city into a Long Island neighborhood. Born on the Fourth of July also saw Stone, for the first time, experiment with several different kinds of film stocks: 16mm, Super 16 and 35mm. He combined footage shot for the film with grainy, archival footage that was originally shot for network news in ’72 to recreate the veterans demonstrating at the Republican National Convention in Miami Beach. This certainly wouldn’t be the last time as he continued to do so with The Doors (1991), JFK (1991), Natural Born Killers (1994), Nixon (1995), and U Turn (1997).
Filming went on hiatus for the Christmas holidays, giving Stone an opportunity to edit sections of the film. He realized that his vision for Born on the Fourth of July had expanded and he would need to shoot more footage than budgeted. Stone went to Pollock and told him he needed an additional $3.8 million. The studio executive was hesitant but after the director showed him some edited sequences, he was given the money and allowed to go ten minutes over the running time that was in his contract.
Cruise had a particularly tough time with the scene where a sexually impotent Kovic pays to be with a Mexican prostitute. Stone remembers the actor’s shyness:
“We just kept shooting, working up to the place where Tom cries, thinking about everything he’ll miss – certainly not from the joy of sex. On one take, something happened inside him. Those tears came from someplace in Tom.”
Cruise remembered, “I went to Oliver and I said, ‘I’m just not there. It’s just not working.’ I remember feeling a lot of anxiety actually.” Stone told him to just do the scene and not think about it. The actor did it and, in the process, learned to let go. The two men clashed occasionally: “Tom is macho, aggressive, male and he wants the best. Perfection is his goal and if he doesn’t achieve it, his frustration is high.” Stone also clashed with the studio, nervous about the film’s commercial prospects so he and Cruise gave up their salaries for a percentage of the profits – a gamble that paid off exponentially.
Kovic was so impressed by Cruise’s performance that on the last day of filming he gave the actor his Bronze Star that he won in Vietnam. For Stone, he wanted the film to “show America, and Tom, and through Tom, Ron being put in a wheelchair, losing their potency. We wanted to show America being forced to redefine its concept of heroism.”
More conflicts arose between Stone and the studio during post-production. When it came to editing the film, Stone felt that the ending needed to be reshot and he also wanted John Williams to score the film. Cruise and Pollock agreed about reshooting the ending but the executive did not want to spend the extra money required to get Williams. In addition, he wanted to move up the release date to Veterans Day instead of Christmas. This enraged Stone and he went to Mike Ovitz, then-head of Creative Artists Agency, who wielded great power in Hollywood, and got him involved. After a meeting with Pollock, Stone agreed to shoot a new ending and Pollock agreed to both keep the original release date and pay to have Williams create the score. Stone remembers, “It left a lot of bad blood. I didn’t continue to work with Universal.”
Born on the Fourth of July received mixed to positive reviews at the time. Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars and wrote, “It is not a movie about battle or wounds or recovery, but a movie about an American who changes his mind about the war…This is a film about ideology, played out in the personal experiences of a young man who paid dearly for what he learned.” Pauline Kael was much more dismissive: “Born on the Fourth of July is like one of those commemorative issues of Life – this one covers 1956 to 1976. Stone plays bumper cars with the camera and uses cutting to jam you into the action, and you can’t even enjoy his uncouthness, because it’s put at the service of sanctimony.” In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, “It’s the most ambitious non-documentary film yet made about the entire Vietnam experience. More effectively than Hal Ashby’s Coming Home and even Michael Cimino’s Deer Hunter, it connects the war of arms abroad with the war of conscience at home.”
Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman gave the film a “C+” rating and wrote, “Tom Cruise tries hard, yet he’s fatally miscast: He simply doesn’t have the emotional range to play a character wallowing in grubby desperation.” In his review for the Washington Post, Hal Hinson wrote, “Born on the Fourth of July is nettlesome work. Stone has gifts as a filmmaker, but subtlety is not one of them. In essence, he’s a propagandist, and, as it turns out, the least effective representative for his point of view.” Finally, Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers wrote, “Stone has found in Cruise the ideal actor to anchor the movie with simplicity and strength. Together they do more than show what happened to Kovic. Their fervent, consistently gripping film shows why it still urgently matters.”
There are people that are patriotic and those that are nationalistic fused with fascism, twisted into something so ugly that it doesn’t resemble what would be called patriotism, to spawn the bastardization of what passes for democracy today. This film wrestles with the definition of patriotism. The power of constitutional rights – most pointedly, the right to assemble and freedom of speech – are both key to our understanding about what it means to be American. It is not un-American to be critical of the country when it has become an unjust place, when the landscape has become an inhospitable place no longer nurturing the ideals upon which it was founded.
Within the fabric of Born on the Fourth of July lies hope. We hope that Kovic is not representing the lone man but the everyman. Hopefully, we will all wake up to what is really happening, pick ourselves up and enact change. This film is a rallying cry that needs to be sounded again, repeatedly, unrelenting in its echo.
Chutkow, Paul. “The Private War of Tom Cruise.” The New York Times. December 17, 1989.
Dutka, Elaine. “The Latest Exorcism of Oliver Stone.” Los Angeles Times. December 17, 1989.
Gabriel, Trip. “Cruise at the Crossroads.” Rolling Stone. January 11, 1990.
O’Riordan, James. Stone: A Biography of Oliver Stone. Aurum Press. 1996.