Oliver Stone’s films live and breathe in the aether of happenstance and catastrophe, hand-wrung spaghetti noodles on the wall of Americana in Technicolor pasticcio, washed in controversy and teeming causticity. He is a storyteller first and everything else serves the story through articulate characters and meaningful plots. Themes and symbolism establish an atmospheric world view where everything has consequences and prosperity has a dark side, purposefully incendiary and enthusiastically combative. His films are experiential, first person struggles and broad-view-imbued situational struggles where he finds false or half-truths or misguided for mass appetites dumbed down to lies. These are the tapestries of his films working in a kind of symbiotic relationship between historical events and fictionalized characterizations. Part textbook research epics and fly-by-night, off the cuff experiments, Stone thrives on mixed reactions that produce definitive results; he has produced some of the biggest most respected and most reviled films in cinematic history. So when we get around to talking about Born of the 4th of July, he’s in perfect form and destined to ignite reactions all over the place – criticism, condemnation and debate.
What makes this film so enjoyable is that it can be taken in ways – competent genre film fueled entertainment helmed by the undeniable, ignitable charms of Hollywood‘s golden child Tom Cruise, and indictment of the war-torn past that is as relevant today as it was when it came out – perhaps more so. And for every lover and hater there is another viewer, the fence sitter – neither impressed or particularly aggravated except for the passing fancy of what protest possibility might come along or national holiday or some other such useless thing. This is big screen entertainment as it has always been designed, a full frame grand story that exceeds the limitations of Stone’s obsessions (unlike other films of his – my review of Savages here) and with a great cast, perfect character actors populating a competent script, you’ve got all the ingredients for an enjoyable movie that still holds up, mixed emotions and volatile actions that only improves after multiple viewings.
Informed through a tightly woven fabric of history, abstract ideologies and gut wrenching bravado, Stone stomps into the theater with his movies, sits in the back row so he can watch your reactions in silence, taken by his own failures and accomplishments. Not that he sets about to fix anything in the films to follow, rather some personal delight in befuddling others. What he achieves is an actual presence, he elevates the story to the world stage and brings the character to the realm of approachable, knowable and to a greater or lesser extent, he imbues heart and soul often attempted but frequently failed in biopic types, based on a real person concept films. Stone’s most salient talent is to empower his broken characters with gut-level verisimilitude then steps away, allows genuine emotions to erase the actor or make his so transparent as to turn the usual glitz and glamour of a supernova Hollywood personality into sophisticated explorations that draw you in, deliver you to the birthplace of characters that are immediate and lasting in your own life experiences.
Driven by Stone’s familiar and articulate camera, his branded editing techniques and his signature bravado that makes heroes of all his criminal souls, Born on the 4th is quite easily among his best films. It does not suffer from Stone’s impulsiveness for splashy action sequences (see Savages) or succumb to drawn out plot contrivances (Troy), mainly because he elevates what could have easily become just another tedious bio pic stuck on getting nuance right at a cost to cinematic. Oliver Stone’s masterful storytelling is truly at the heart of the film, the ease at which he governs and navigates plot while developing character, pushing always pushing at the story to be more than what we’re seeing – often he creates an atmosphere in his films that is at once familiar as our own and then stylized, necessarily, elevated as all great films take the common and puffs up ordinary to extraordinary highlights.
This was the first film that came to mind when I sat down to write about this past 4th of July, but not simply because of the title (though it does pop to mind rather quickly) or the relevancy of themes of patriotism, American pie and identity in our bedraggled day and age, rather Stone’s driving passion and ability to weave together history and fantasy in believable and measured significance without feeling like he was on a soap box to right wrongs or prove his mastery of schoolroom theatrics. I wanted a film that put me in an atmosphere of the holiday without being told I had to come away with something to become a better person. Stone’s sense of grandness of a story about the transformational process of everyday Americana of the 1960s and a point in time of tremendous social unrest that is both homage to the past and commentary on the future is among his greatest achievements in a career that spans decades. In some ways we might look back at Oliver Stone’s 1989 film as a slice of life portrait of the loss of innocence that knows no bounds or discrimination but operates with impunity, reminding us of the men and women who have made the greatest sacrifice in the name of our freedom, our independence and our exhausting pursuits of self fulfillment that is often at odds with the world around us.
We learn about our country in the earliest classroom experiences of our youth, where we come from and what it means to be Americans and believe in something greater than our own lives. In a lot of ways, the 4th of July is about community and the celebration of togetherness in all our similarities and differences. Through this collective, hap-hazard and motley crew of immigrant voices we come to appreciate the stories that most reflect who we are and who we become. Oliver Stone‘s film “Born On The Fourth Of July” is an epic story, one based on actual events and real people. It is through the prism of the central character Ron Kovic (Tom Cruise) that we find the journey so many young men embarked on in 1960s in search of meaning, identity and confirmation they had something at stake in a war that threatened everything they believed in. America at the time was locked in bitter confrontation with itself and the world, throwing everyday struggles into a society of upheaval. Like the lives of many, many people we follow Kovic from boyhood and adolescence to his becoming a man by enlisting to fight in the Vietnam War. But his world is forever transformed like so many others in the cavernous tragedy of war. The reason this film succeeds is that it has a profound and personal affect on people from all walks and persuasions, from those who lived during this time and those affected after to those who look back from today with a specter of curiosity, condemnation and awe. Tom Cruise as the quintessential American boy of any Rockwell composition, is as striking as he is fearless in the role. We had never seen the extent of Cruise’s talent before the film and rarely since. Like all great and powerful films, Born on the Fourth of July demands your presence and will certainly reward your investment on the fourth of July or any other.
Born on the Fourth of July was a critical and commercial success and remains on the best of and top films of the genre, the year and the decade ever since. It is an adaptation of the best-selling autobiography of the same name by Vietnam War veteran Ron Kovic. Stone, a Vietnam veteran himself co-wrote the screenplay with Kovic and earned 8 Academy Award nominations and won for Best Director, and Best Film Editing, four Golden Globs and a Directors Guild of America Award. Mixed reviews will position you in various distances from the material, gushing accolades and grotesque disfavor – ultimately you’ll have to wade through it to find your own sense of entertainment and education. For every voice of praise there are two in opposition, and likewise. The greatest accomplishment any film or filmmaker can hope to achieve is a real chance at something meaningful, the experiential potential to take the viewer and deliver them differently, for better or for worse. Anything else is failure.
I discovered Garden Urthark’s review of this film about the time I set about to write a review to fall on the 4th of July this 2013. Sadly I missed that deadline, here August already – decommissioned by my own personal war injuries of a whole other kind of unwinnable American catastrophe. Garden’s writing struck me as authentic. His personal observations lend an approachable and special connection, reflective and poignancy that exceeds any peripheral review or aggregated content.