Until the 1980’s, Hollywood had a strange relationship with the Vietnam War. While the war was actually being fought, movies, typically, did not depict the war unless they were something like John Wayne’s The Green Berets. If the war was dealt with, usually it was done metaphorically, or by using another war as a stand-in, such as what happened with 1970’s MASH. This started to change after the war finally ended, with the late seventies seeing the release of three major films – The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now and Coming Home, Despite their popularity, during the first half of the eighties, when the war was dealt with on-screen it was typically as wish fulfillment, where action stars such as Chuck Norris and Sylvester Stallone single-handedly refought the war, and won, to the delight of audiences.
That all changed when Oliver Stone made Platoon. For the first time, a Vietnam War movie was made by someone who actually served. Stone was a U.S Army veteran who was twice wounded, and received a Bronze Star, a Purple Heart and many other decorations. For the first time, Platoon presented a realistic depiction of the war through the eyes of the grunts, and it led to a whole slew of Vietnam movies, including Full Metal Jacket, Hamburger Hill, Casualties of War, The Hanoi Hilton, and many others. Stone himself would return to the war in 1989’s Born on the Fourth of July, which would prove to be a defining film for it’s star – Tom Cruise.
Flashback to 1988. Rain Man was a massive hit at the box office, ranking as the top grossing film of the year and winning a whole slew of Oscars. While Dustin Hoffman took home a Best Actor trophy, his co-star, Tom Cruise, wasn’t even nominated, and many thought he’d been overshadowed by Hoffman, who had the showier role.
Yet, by the time the Oscars rolled around Cruise was already in the middle of shooting a movie that would earn him his first Oscar nomination, Born on the Fourth of July. For Oliver Stone, it was a passion project. He’d long wanted to bring the true story of Ron Kovic to the big screen. Kovic was a U.S, Marine Corp Sergeant who was shot an paralyzed during the war. A paraplegic, upon his return home he became an outspoken anti-war activist, and his story resonated for Stone, who had actually been hired to adapt Kovic memoir in the seventies as a potential starring vehicle for Al Pacino. The project fell apart, and Kovic subsequently acted as a consultant for Coming Home, for which Jon Voight won an Oscar playing a paraplegic veteran heavily inspired by Kovic.
In the wake of Platoon, Stone was suddenly one of the most important directors in Hollywood, with his reputation only boosted by the success of Wall Street, which won its star Michael Douglas an Oscar. He decided that he wanted to return to the war by examining the anti-war movement, and indeed it would form the second part of his loose Vietnam trilogy, which would be concluded by Heaven & Earth, which would examine the conflict from the Vietnamese side.
Working with a heftier budget, Stone and his DP Robert Richardson would be shooting anamorphically for the first time, and they needed a real movie star to carry the movie. Stone could have had his pick of anyone, but his first and only choice was Tom Cruise. While this may seem like a no-brainer now, it was an unusual pairing at the time. Lets not forget that Top Gun had come out the same year as Platoon, and the two films could not have been more different in their treatment of the armed services. Stone even called Top Gun “fascist”, but he still wanted Cruise to play the part, mainly due to his Golden Boy reputation. Stone’s theory was that it would be fascinating to see what Cruise would be like were his presumably bright future stolen away from him in an instant, as happened with Kovic.
Indeed, the fact that Cruise is so young and promising in the first act makes the movie all the more bittersweet. The first act of the movie plays out like your quintessential Tom Cruise movie, with him the Golden Boy pride of his family, who they proudly send off to war. He comes back, initially, a shell of his former self, but gradually is reawakened and in his own way, is victorious in the end, albeit his victory is bittersweet.
In Cruise, Stone found a willing participant. In fact, Cruise was so gung-ho in his portrait that, for awhile, him and Stone considered using a nerve agent to simulate paralysis, only for the insurance companies to forbid them. As Laurence Olivier told Dustin Hoffman when he stayed up for days on end to play sleep deprived in Marathon Man, “try acting.”
Cruise would spend a full year preparing for the role, and his physical transformation is a sight to behold, as outside of Tropic Thunder, Tom Cruise typically looks like – well, Tom Cruise. Here, with his moustache and receding hairline, Cruise disappears into the role, and indeed Kovic, who it should be noted is still alive and well, was so touched by his dedication that he gave Cruise his Bronze Star.
Stone would fill the rest of the cast with an interesting mix of actors, some of whom he’d worked with before. Perhaps the two most important supporting roles would be played by two carry-overs from Platoon, Willem Dafoe and Tom Berenger. Each would play a variation on the roles they played in that film, once again playing the hero’s quasi-spiritual fathers. Dafoe would play a major supporting role as a fellow quadriplegic Kovic meets in Mexico, while Berenger would play a much smaller, but just as important part, as the Recruiting Officer for the Marine Corps, whose spiel leaves the impressionable Kovic desperate to enlist. It’s essentially a cameo, but it’s an important one. Other Platoon vets, including John C. McGinley and Mark Moses would show up in other roles, while actors Stone would work with again and again in the future, such as Frank Whalley and Tom Sizemore. One of the most important supporting roles would go to a young Kyra Sedgwick, who plays the girl Kovic left behind, who eventually becomes an anti-war activist and helps inspire his new take on the war.
Overall, Born on the Fourth of July is a rich addition to the filmographies of both Cruise and Stone. For Cruise, it was a showcase role, and if anyone still doubted him in 1989, this movie would end any speculation that he was just a movie star, rather than a legitimately talented actor. Cruise is outstanding, and indeed it’s the type of role I think Cruise could still play nowadays, although for the time being his focus seems to be more on pushing the craft of the action film further and further. Still, if he decided to return to more character-based stuff, I think Cruise could shock people.
For Stone, it’s one of his best films as all the elements seem to come together perfectly here. At about 2.5 hours, it’s a disciplined, but still epic story, and it’s not quite as aggressive as his later work would be, with him never quite the same after Natural Born Killers. The editing was provocative for the era, but now it seems almost restrained, and Stone also benefits form having a great score by John Williams, which compliments the soundtrack selections perfectly. Stone actually only spends a brief amount of time in Vietnam here, as he’d previously covered that territory about as well as he could in Platoon, but Cruise still had to undergo in the infamously difficult Dale Dye training method, which would become a standard for Hollywood war movies for years to come. Arguably the most harrowing part of the film would be set at a VA hospital, where Kovic, in disbelief, tries to overcome his injury, only to be faced with squalid, over-packed hospitals that make similar sequences in movies like Forrest Gump look cartoonish in comparison. Stone also goes to great pains to depict the anti-war movement in a realistic way, even hiring Kovic and perhaps the most famous anti-war protestor of them all, Abbie Hoffman to advise, with the film climaxing with Kovic protesting the Republican National Convention. If the movie has any failing, it’s that Kovic’s anti-war activities get relatively little screen time, with Stone more interesting in Kovic’s physical and spiritual journey. One could almost argue that with Kovic still alive and well, the two could re-team on a second Kovic project, with him still an active anti-war demonstrator.
In the end, Born on the Fourth of July was a smash hit. While it didn’t come close to making the kind of money Rain Man or even Platoon did, it still made over $70 million in 1989 dollars, and was the 10th highest grossing movie of the year. Inevitably, Cruise lost the Oscar to Daniel Day Lewis for My Left Foot, but Stone won an Oscar for Best Director. All these years later, it remains somewhat unheralded as the movies of Cruise’s everyone remembers are his huge blockbusters, but to me, this contains his best ever performance and should be watched again and again.