Directed by Oliver Stone

Written by Stone and Ron Kovic

With Tom Cruise, Kyra Sedgwick, and Willem Dafoe.

In Vietnam war films, U.S. troops are over there because they’re over there because they’re over there. Not one feature film–unless you count John Wayne’s frothing right-wing fantasy The Green Berets (1968)–ventures a plausible reason why billions of dollars and tens of thousands of American lives (and over a million and a half Vietnamese lives) were squandered cruelly in Southeast Asia. What we tend to get on-screen instead of explanations are bits and pieces of pretty pathetic mumbo jumbo. There’s the notion, for example, permeating The Deer Hunter (1978) and Apocalypse Now (1979) that a sort of metaphysical jungle rot infected and addled American soldiers so that they became, like Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando, the paunchy commando in Coppola’s epic), capable of extremely unsportsmanlike conduct. In Full Metal Jacket (1987), Stanley Kubrick suggests, through Private Joker’s lips, that the hideous source of all the conspicuous horror was the “duality of man.” You know, the Jungian thing. Ah. So that’s why we were in Vietnam.

Perhaps it’s just as well that feature filmmakers leave serious inquiry to documentaries (for example, Emile de Antonio’s 1969 In the Year of the Pig and Peter Davis’s 1975 Hearts and Minds). That way they can round up the usual cinematic elements: helicopter gunship attacks, billowing napalm blasts, a “grunt’s-eye view” of gruesome ground combat (which recently reached an apogee in the vivid “you are there” subjective camera gimmick of 84 Charlie MoPic), and inadvertent atrocities–or even deliberate ones, as in De Palma’s Casualties of War. By now these make up a cavalcade of cliches, but they spare filmmakers (and nervous producers) from taking a controversial stance and thus risking the alienation of potential ticket buyers.

The message “war is hell,” however, is both inoffensive and, as Studs Terkel’s “The Good War” and Paul Fussell’s Wartime recently reminded readers regarding World War II, terribly true. So is there anything still worth saying in film about Vietnam? Obviously, despite his Oscar-laden Platoon (1987), director Oliver Stone is attending to unfinished business in Born on the Fourth of July. Here the scene is largely the home front, where all is disturbingly quiet. Stone, a Vietnam vet himself, uses disabled veteran Ron Kovic’s brave and bitter autobiography to conduct a critical reconnaissance mission in American suburbia while tracing the transformation of a decorated marine from Yankee-Doodle dandy to dissenter–a change many other Americans at the time underwent in, luckily, less costly and spectacular ways. Stone skillfully fills the film with dark premonitory moments, imbuing it with the fatal relentlessness of Greek tragedy, and delivers a telling portrait of American cultural complacency. He tends to stumble, unfortunately, when portraying how and why the gung ho Kovic came to oppose the war.

Stone opens Fourth of July by intercutting scenes of a band of would-be warrior children drilling and “killing” in a sun-glazed field in an idyllic Long Island town with sudden menacing shots of play-for-real Vietcong dashing through a jungle en route to an ambush. The ambush erupts into a field of screams, while the children bicker over who zapped whom. Stone sets himself the task of examining the connection between these events so widely separated in time and space and degree of gore.

Cut to a Fourth of July parade in 1956 in the same small town. High-kicking, baton-twirling majorettes precede a slow-mo shot of a group of maimed and melancholic war veterans, including a close-up of a crippled ex-marine wincing when firecrackers explode. But these ex-soldiers are just a mute, mobile museum exhibit amid the jingoistic gaiety of the holiday procession. In the crowd, ten-year-old Ron Kovic, in New York Yankees cap, and his parents and pals cheer uncomprehendingly. Using an ironic elegiac tone, director Stone carefully evokes an idealized, insulated suburban America in an innocent and ignorant era when Reds were under the beds, low-interest mortgages abounded, and living standards sweetly rose even for lower-middle-class families like the devout and patriotic and unquestioning Kovics. In the words of a Paul Goodman book of the time, this section depicts Ron “growing up absurd,” and ever so gullible. The earnest lad is a credible, credulous all-American teenager, exactly what the official culture–from the Boy Scout handbook to Life magazine–encouraged.

Although Fourth of July supplies a set of cute vignettes–a first kiss, a Little League homer–there’s no mistaking the ambivalence with which Stone views this narrow, sheltered milieu. The father is kind yet full of quiet desperation, and Mrs. Kovic is a rigid, frightened, religiously overwrought woman who calls down her idiotic God’s wrath–in the future form, perhaps, of a VC bullet snapping a spinal cord–upon her son for possessing a Playboy. Ron is easy prey for John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” an extraordinarily ambiguous message that sent Green Berets and Peace Corps volunteers alike fanning out across the globe. Ron the teenager (Tom Cruise) passionately wants to serve a government that, as the record shows, lied and lied and lied about the Vietnam war. Stone wisely caves in to temptation, inserting a chilling cameo by Tom Berenger, a resurrected psychotic Sergeant Barnes of Platoon, as a marine recruiter.

The few Vietnam scenes are brief and brutal. In October 1967, on Kovic’s second tour of duty, his patrol accidentally shoots children and old men and women. Later, in a firefight with enemy troops, the confused Kovic kills a young marine from Georgia who has suddenly dashed up over a hill. Still later, the grieving, guilt-ridden Kovic is himself terribly wounded. He survives but is paralyzed from the chest down. Cut to 1969, in the Bronx VA hospital where Kovic and his companions cope with an underfunded, understaffed facility overrun with rodents and snarling attendants. Billions for defense, pennies for care for the casualties.

Kovic wages a titanic struggle against self-pity and despair. But the evening after he “stars” in another hometown Fourth of July parade, Kovic utters this perfectly human but thematically undermining statement: “I’d give anything I believe in for a whole body.” The script fails to offset Kovic’s anger with a moral or political reason why he later decries the war as “imperialistic,” making it too easy for some viewers to dismiss him as a–justifiably–pissed-off crank. Apart from that nagging flaw, the film sparkles. Cruise proves he can induce audiences to imagine him numb from the chest down as readily as he has from the chest up.

Stone niftily strings together a batch of cuttingly effective dramatic sequences. In a bar, Cruise wheels boozily around a pool table in a parody of his stud strut in The Color of Money, then encounters a vicious veteran of the Iwo Jima campaign. (In his book, Kovic ironically cites Sands of Iwo Jima, starring John Wayne, as a favorite childhood flick.) A shrieking match with Mom becomes a masterpiece of mutual pain on-screen, like a Munch painting in Dolby. In a seaside Mexican brothel, Kovic poignantly savors what pleasure he can, and meets another ghost of Vietnam films past, the rowdy disabled vet Charlie (Willem Dafoe, martyred Sergeant Elias of Platoon). Even the late Abbie Hoffman appears fleetingly, when Kovic crashes the 1972 Republican convention. Four years later, Kovic is an invited speaker at the Democratic jamboree.

But the penultimate scene–Kovic’s penitent visit to the wife and parents of the marine he killed–is the most memorably disturbing. All the while Kovic confesses, the widow’s son squirms on her lap and brandishes a suitably scaled toy machine gun. Stone’s moving film is so disturbing because it’s so devoid of persuasive argument against the war–I’m afraid it will do nothing to dissuade that youngster from going out someday to play for keeps.