Something came over me and I had the urge to make my way through the Oliver Stone movies I’ve never seen. Born on the Fourth of July is the biggie. It was nominated for a ton of Oscars and won a few (Stone bagged his second for Best Director) and unlike many of Stone’s other acclaimed 80s films (Wall Street ahem) it still seems to be held in certain high regard.
I’m not usually one for heavy handed war movies but admittedly this one sucked me in. The story of Ron Kovic’s hellish transformation from young American go-getter to a crippled, disillusioned and abandoned ‘Nam veteran is clearly one close to Stone’s heart and he instills it with as much passion and stylistic vigour as he can. Yes, it’s very on the nose and aimed at the heart strings, Stone has never been the most subtle filmmaker and is prone to bang the obvious point or approach as hard as he can but that is also part of what makes him Oliver Stone. It feels like a film made in the 80s in way that slightly dates it but also in a way that makes it sensical. I’m not surprised this film resonated with so many in 1989 and became a blockbuster. Like Platoon and Wall Street before it, the film taps into unsettled attitudes and unspoken truths that were at their height in 1989 with total transparency. It’s a message movie, but one that was utterly essential at the time of release.
There are many sequences here which showcase Stone swinging the bat at full strength that really work. The battle sequences, shot with long lenses at sunset, are striking in their stylisation and the nightmarish hospital where Kovic is sentenced to months of squalor and recovery is unforgettable. Cruise’s performance too is pretty titan. Characteristically it looks like your standard “Give me an Oscar” attempt but there’s an earnestness and sincerity there that outweighs that vibe and convinced me this was Cruise’s all or nothing bid to be seen as the greatest actor of his generation. Like Stone, he gives it his all. It is a performance as physical as it is emotional and the gamut of torment he has to play must be an actor’s dream (albeit a draining one). I don’t throw this word around lightly, but his work here was transformative.
Oliver Stone was once regarded as one of the most successful and important filmmakers of his generation but shifting times and opinions on his films seems to have regressed him into a filmmaker regarded as overrated so commonly that he has actually become underrated. His filmography might be unwieldy and his aesthetic and politics too much for some to take, but I always respond to the full-blooded drive behind his films. He is wildly experimental but pitches his projects, like Spielberg, to the wildest possible audience making some of his films viscerally original and others laughably overwrought. Born on the Fourth of July captures his habits in perfect moderation with the material. It’s a quintessential Oliver Stone film. It’s not an immediate favourite, but I enjoyed it as a reminder that now and again, I am actually a fan of this filmmaker. And 80s Cruise at his most serious is great.