‘Born on the Fourth of July'
“Born on the Fourth of July” came at a time of urgency in the careers of both Oliver Stone and Tom Cruise. Stone's portrayals of Vietnam combat in “Platoon” and corporate malfeasance in “Wall Street” solidified his reputation as a marquee provocateur and chronicler of the great lightning-rod conflicts of the late 20th century. Meanwhile, Cruise was embroiled in the early days of his eternal image battle: Was he a serious actor or just a pretty face? “Born on the Fourth of July” gave Cruise a chance to capitalize on his good reviews for supporting Paul Newman in “The Color of Money” and inoculate himself against the ridiculousness of “Cocktail.” His pull-out-the-stops performance as disabled Vietnam War veteran Ron Kovic earned Cruise an Oscar nomination. Cruise did not quite disappear into the role, but he came close.
This was not the first time Kovic's experiences provided the basis for a major film. Jane Fonda cited the activist as a major inspiration for Hal Ashby's “Coming Home,” but “Born on the Fourth of July” was based on Kovic's own memoir. As Stone mentions in a 1989 interview with Bryant Gumbel on the Blu-ray extras, the director committed to adapting Kovic's story in the late 1970s. Stone's success 10 years later not only allowed him to fulfill that promise but provided a platform for discussing how the horrors depicted in 1986's “Platoon” were just the beginning for many veterans.
At 27, Cruise was able to convincingly play Kovic beginning in his suburban high school days and stay with him for about 12 years, vividly depicting Kovic's U.S. Marines service and his struggles to rehabilitate after his paralysis, rejoin society and emerge as a voice in the anti-war movement. Stone and Cruise are at their absolute best depicting the Grand Guignol horror of Kovic's treatment at an underfunded Veterans Affairs hospital, but a third-act decision to skip forward several years to Kovic's address at the 1976 Democratic National Convention glosses over a key period in his development to make him an instant hero.