Born on the Fourth of July – The Wiz Retro Rewind

Some things are great forever…some have an expiration date. For this fact alone, some “All-Time Greats” need a serious reality check to see if they still stand up or can still be considered great at this present time. Enter “The Wiz Retro Rewind,” where The Wiz re-examines some important and beloved films to see if it’s still good, still relevant or if could be expanded upon or updated.

In this entry, we take a look at another Oliver Stone film that earned him another Best Director Academy Award. What’s strange about this film is that it’s become one of Stone’s least celebrated films that won him previous acclaim. When most film fans hear “Oliver Stone”, they think of Platoon, Wall Street, JFK, Natural Born Killers, Any Given Sunday. Yet, this movie hasn’t received anywhere near the acclaim and notoriety that those films have.

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If you caught my last Retro Rewind, you know that Oliver Stone’s Platoon did not age well…at all. In fact, it feels like more of a comedy of errors than anything else. Then I realized that I made the next film I’m watching Born on the Fourth of July and, honestly, I winced a bit. Vietnam again? Disillusioned youth, again?

Yet, the film has a few things going for it: One is a better cast, such as Tom Cruise and Kyra Sedgwick. It also seems to be going for a different style of film than Platoon did, which is also a plus.

In fact, Born on the Fourth of July still is a good movie in some ways. It also reminded me of why Oliver Stone is considered a great director. It also reminded me that he needs to be reigned it at times.

Whereas Platoon gets the acclaim still to this day, Born on the Fourth of July deserves a second look to see a young Tom Cruise take over a dramatic film for the first time and Oliver Stone taking a personal story and making it more grand than most war films are.

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Melodramatic…but in a good way

Tone can kill a movie. If a filmmaker has an idea for a scene, a moment, an actor, a piece of music: it’s imperative to make sure that it fits a consistent tone that is set throughout the story. Ron Kovic’s story, from idealistic adolescence to disillusioned war vet to protestor and author, would be a tough movie to get a tone right. Yet, the film has a cheery, patriotic tone that strangely works for the entire film.

In fact, the tone of the film reminds me of patriotic war movies of old. Wind instruments, bustling music, bright visuals, heroism personified…all while telling the horrors of what this vet went through in Vietnam, in the Bronx Veterans Hospital and returning to an America that didn’t really want him back.

It’s odd because the film is not a pleasant watch. The Veteran’s hospital in particular is a hard watch, mainly because of how horrible the conditions were and the way the hospital is portrayed in the mind of Kovic. Watching Kovic struggle with his problems: alcoholism, disillusionment, his war experience: the tone sets a perfect feel of his continuing battles and it makes this 2 1/2 hour movie feel a lot less of a long movie.

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Becoming Kovic

Now, this next segment comes with a disclaimer: I’ve always been a fan of Tom Cruise. I’ve always felt that, despite him possibly being bat-shit crazy, that he can make any film good. He can make a good film great. He can make a great film otherworldly. Go ahead, throw Oblivion, Knight and Day, Jack Reacher and Rock of Ages in my face. Those films stunk to high hell but you know what didn’t stink? Tom Cruise.

People look at him and seem to think he’s a one-note actor: this movie proves his range even at a young age. To go through all the changes he had to in order to play Kovic is difficult for most great actors (hell, DiCaprio couldn’t do it in J. Edgar, though that film had much bigger problems), but he not only pulls off this performance by being sympathetic, he also gives the character the amount of pathos and grounding it desperately needed.

The importance of this character being played right was crucial and out of anything in this movie, Cruise’s performance is easily the most eye-opening. In fact, if I were to make a list of vital performances that should be celebrated, this is definitely one of them. And you can add that to his list of great performances, such as Risky Business, Magnolia, Collateral, Minority Report, Jerry Maguire, A Few Good Men, etc.

This could very well be his best. If you’re a Cruise fan, this film is a must.

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The Color of Betrayal

Let’s get back to Oliver Stone. The tone needed to be talked about mainly because of how Platoon felt all over the place, but this film has a consistent theme and tone that works throughout the film. What also works is the stylistic decisions Oliver Stone made to the film.

To make a film that harkened back to old war propoganda films, there was a big chance for this film to feel bloated and too self-indulgent. However, the films mood along with the camera decisions Stone made in key scenes give this personal story a surprisingly epic feel that works throughout.

To appreciate this movie Stone made, watch something like W. or Alexander, two bio-pics that Stone created that either was divisive (W.) or just outright terrible (Alexander). The way he gives nearly every scene a purpose or a separate feel than some of the movie while still making it feel right in the story is exceptional.

I came out of Platoon thinking “Man, is Oliver Stone just really overrated?” I came out of Born in the Fourth of July saying “Oh, no, he’s a damn good director. Inconsistent, but damn good.”

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Fact/Stoned

So, here’s the thing with Oliver Stone that gives people pause. Does he embellish events that happened or possibly makes a character more sinister/likable than he should be? Does he fit the facts to a narrative that he finds to just work for his film? It’s very possible on both counts.

This really all depends on if you watch the film and want to learn more on Ron Kovic. Yes, parts of the film never happened in real life. Yes, Stone may have put a little extra relish in some scenes to give it more gravitas.

So, if you’re looking for the most purely authentic story about Ron Kovic, you’re not going to get it here most likely. Will you get an overly sympathetic treatment of Kovic? No, you will not either. He’s portrayed, with warts and all, for you to see and appreciate.

You decide whether you want to take the movie at its word or dig deeper to find what was real and what wasn’t. Personally, what he added didn’t detract from the main crux of the film. You, however, may feel very different.

Is It Good? Is It Still Relevant?

Who Should See It:

Tom Cruise fans
Oliver Stone fans
Fans of Bio-pics.
Fans of well stylized films (such as Traffic, Pulp Fiction)

Who Shouldn’t See It:

Not fans of Cruise or Stone
If factual inaccuracies kill a film for you.

It’s surprising that this film isn’t as celebrated like Stone’s more controversial films, like Natural Born Killers, JFK, and Platoon. Including films like Wall Street, this is his best directed film. This movie has made me want to dive into his other films just to see how different he does each film.

Yes, he’s inconsistent. But Born on the Fourth of July is a movie that fully stands up to today’s bio-pics and psychological dramas.

The Wiz Retro Rewind #6

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