What We're Watching: Born on the Fourth of July

Submitted by Durham Tech Library on

Title: Born on the Fourth of July

Directed by Oliver Stone

Genre: War, Biopic, Available via DVD at Durham Tech Library

This movie was reviewed by Kyle Minton, Reference Librarian.

Why did you choose to watch this film?

I watched this the day before the 4th of July, primarily because of the holiday and I had not seen it before. It is notable for being part of Oliver Stone's trilogy regarding the Vietnam War, which includes Platoon (1986) and Heaven and Earth (1993). The movie won Stone (who served in Vietnam as an Infantryman) his second Academy Award for Best Director and is based on a memoir written by Vietnam War veteran Ron Kovic, who is portrayed by Tom Cruise in the film. The film follows a dramatized depiction of Kovic's journey through military recruitment, active deployment and the war injury that paralyzes him below his chest. The film's climax follows Kovic's depression regarding his injury and adjustment to civilian life as the war rages on, until Kovic finds new vigor in participating in anti-war demonstrations with other Vietnam War veterans.

In addition to the DVD, Durham Tech Library has an eBook of the memoir available for users.

What did you like about it?

Despite being about the consequences of war, I appreciated that Born on the 4th of July is not your traditional war film. While it contains bloody scenes of battle, the actual warfare is brief and not at all the focus of the movie. In the Oliver Stone Encyclopedia, the authors note movie critic Pauline Kael's analysis of the movie as "overblown," which I would agree with despite enjoying aspects of the movie overall. Tom Cruise's portrayal as a doe-eyed, eager United States Marine recruit in the 60's makes for a fairly saccharine first-third of the movie, while his descent into a drunken depression following his paralysis is equally exaggerated in the last third.

Strangely enough, I think the film's scenes in the VA hospital are the most affecting, where African American nurses and doctors openly discuss racial discrimination felt at home and in the armed forces. Their struggles can read about in the 1997 book Fighting on Two Fronts : African Americans and the Vietnam War, which contains the passage: "The issue was no longer whether black Americans would be allowed to do their 'fair share' in their country's wars but rather if they were being asked to carry a disproportionate load of the fighting and dying, and all for a nation that still treated them essentially as second class citizens."

Did it remind you of any other movie?

The first third of the movie, filled with cloying Americana, does evoke Forrest Gump. Once the war begins, while it is thematically adjacent to Oliver Stone's other Vietnam War movie, Platoon, or even Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket, Born on the Fourth of July's role as a biopic of a single man and his perception of the war is naturally a more limited, narrower experience of the violence during the war. While these dramatized American perspectives are notable and worth viewing, it should be noted that Durham Tech provides access to a number of Vietnamese movies on the war, which are often overlooked in mainstream accounts of the war. Don't Burn by director Nhat Minh Dang and Sandy Lives by Nguyen Thanh Van are two examples of Vietnamese perspectives on the war, available to stream for Durham Tech Library users.

[To access streaming video titles off-campus, use your Durham Tech username and password (same as for Self-Service and Sakai) to authenticate. Contact the Library if you have questions.]

Was there anything noteworthy about the film?

One of the most remarkable scenes toward the end of the film is the portrayal of Ron Kovic's protest of the Republican National Convention of 1972. Tom Cruise shouting "Stop the bombing!" is powerful, but it is nothing compared to the actual footage of Ron Kovic's protest. This movie is also noteworthy for featuring subtle commentary on issues with wheelchair accessibility, such as a quick cutaway from a raised curb illustrating the many hurdles to accessibility prior to passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which among other things standardized ramps in sidewalks for wheelchair users.

What feeling did the film leave you with?

America feels like it is in an incredibly sensitive place at the moment and watching films that ruminate on what it means to be patriotic can help clarify one's own feelings about our nation and its actions. On a much less severe note, I think Tom Cruise looks pretty impressive with a handlebar mustache and I think the original casting of Al Pacino would have worked better.

Who would you recommend the movie to?

War or history fans, although I would strongly recommend this be paired with a movie from the Vietnamese perspective, many of which are available to Durham Tech users from home.

Want to read about this topic? Check out these books from the Durham Tech Library collections.

Users can click on each book to see it in the library catalog.

Other Moons Vietnamese Short Stories of the American War and Its Aftermath. Translated and edited by Quan Manh Ha and Joseph Babcock
Nothing ever dies Vietnam and the Memory of War. Viet Thanh Nguyen, author of The Sympathizer.
The Vietnam War An Intimate History. Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns. Based on the film series by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick.

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