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Born on the Fourth of July: Special Edition

Universal Home Video

Starring Tom Cruise, Willem Dafoe, and Kyra Sedgwick

Written by Ron Kovic and Oliver Stone
Directed by Oliver Stone

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Review by D. K. Holm                    

The Argument: Nine Reasons Why Tom Cruise is a Great Actor.

The Evidence: Risky Business, The Color of Money, Rain Man, A Few Good Men, The Firm, Mission: Impossible, Jerry Maguire, Magnolia. And Born on the Fourth of July.

The Annotation: Tom Cruise has suffered too long under the hail of ridicule from intellectuals and media pundits, as well as from a class of moviegoers who routinely "hate" Cruise on general principles. To them he is merely a pretty boy; the worst kind of star, one thrust upon us by studio hype. To those who also read the gossip magazines, he is in addition little more than a Scientologist engaged in some kind of fake marriage, whose millions are funneled into the ravenous maw of a huckster's racket. The wholesale dismissal of Cruise by the coffee-drinking, black-clad young — who of course can't be "fooled" by the media — as well as his disparagement by the Dogma-obsessed film buffs, indeed, his inability to be taken seriously by anyone in the media besides Vanity Fair, makes him (to this viewer anyway) the male equivalent of Elizabeth Hurley, someone whose physical allure somehow justifies both critical and private evaluations that "she can't act," a statement that is demonstrably untrue (although it should be added that Hurley has yet to make a film as "important" as one of Cruise's).

That Cruise is one of the few bankable stars right now must be galling to this brand of smug complainer. But the time has come for people to start taking Tom Cruise seriously.

There are a few things that need to be pointed out about his career. Tom Cruise has worked with, in fact sought out, most of the top directors of this era — Barry Levinson, Brian De Palma, Martin Scorsese, Cameron Crowe, Francis Ford Coppola, Ridley Scott, Sidney Pollack, Paul Thomas Anderson, Stanley Kubrick, and soon Steven Spielberg. The only other actor who comes close to submitting to that level of the auteur gravitational pull is Johnny Depp. Not all of these directors have top-tier cachet with the public. Instead, the criterion that guides whom he chooses to work with seems to be directors who like to work. To me, that announces that Cruise is at the very least serious about his acting, regardless of what others think of it.

And though I'm not one to take awards too seriously, they do provide an obvious measure of popularity with the public and respect within the "industry," and Cruise has been nominated for several. Most attention-getting, just by the high-profile nature of the award, is that he has been nominated three times for acting Oscars. In all Cruise has received 30 nominations or awards (including a Razzie) to Depp's 12.

Also, there is a remarkable consistency to Cruise's career. He often takes as his projects tales in which he plays a naive or brash young man in mentorship to an older, sometimes betraying, man (which is what makes him the perfect casting choice for P.T. Anderson, who hardly makes movies about anything else). If the auteur theory can be said to apply to actors, and some do say that, then Cruise is an actorial auteur.

But what does acting come down to? Is it The Look? Any actor with the clout to hire a Vitorio Storaro is going to look great. No, it is line readings. Can the actor utter a single sentence and sound authentic? Under that test, Cruise passes again. Some of his line readings in Jerry Maguire are priceless. And the first Mission: Impossible is one of his most underrated performances in this regard.

Most important of all, and the hardest point to prove, is that Cruise seems to pick his projects with a deft knack for pleasing his fans, while also working on subjects that bring him to the next level of actorial and intellectual stimulation. Sure he made Cocktail. But later he went on to make The Firm, another movie about a false mentor. Sure he made Interview with the Vampire. But later he went on to make Jerry Maguire, which is, broadly speaking, also about a man navigating his way through a despised subculture. And of course he made Top Gun. But then he proceeded to make Born on the Fourth of July.

Born on the Fourth of July, published by Universal Home Video as part of a joint venture with Warner Home Video to release most of Oliver Stone's films in new, expanded editions on DVD, many with new audio commentaries, finds director Oliver Stone once again in bombast form. What restrains the usually energetic Stone from the kind of narrative excesses and heavy symbolism found in Talk Radio and Wall Street is the fact that the movie is based on a true story. It imposes adherence to some form of reality, which keeps Stone in line. Ron Kovic really was born on the fourth of July. He was raised in a middle class family in the '50s on Long Island; his father (played by Raymond J. Barry) was a rather retiring grocery store manager; his Catholic mother (Caroline Kava) was something of a shrew, easily disappointed in her family (there is a strain of mother and wife hatred in Stone's work, which is illuminated if you ever see a PBS documentary about him in which he is shown in tandem with his French-born mother).

In Born on the Fourth of July, based on Kovic's book, Kovic's mother is always pushing Ron, one of several of her children, to win at sports and to be patriotic. Dutifully, he joined the Marines at the height of the Vietnam War, eager to go there even though his father seemed unsupportive. He ends up shot and losing the use of his legs. The rest of the film charts his journey from despondency and shock at his treatment in a Veterans' hospital, to despair and loneliness, and finally anti-war activism. In the end, it's another Vietnam film from Stone, but more indirect; it's mostly about the war back home. What saves Born on the Fourth of July from utter bombast is the director's unflinching chronicling of Kovic's life, such as his almost life-threatening experiences in the Vet's hospital. The only aspect of Kovic's experiences Stone seems to have made up or condensed is his relationship with a high school sweetheart (Kyra Sedgwick), an amalgam of several people, and a post-Vietnam visit to the family of a fellow soldier whom Kovic may have killed with friendly fire, which never happened.

Born on the Fourth of July is a powerful movie if you are in the mood to be outraged all over again by things you are already convinced are wrong. But it also shows Cruise at the top of his game. He was nominated for an Oscar and should have won it; instead the award went to Daniel Day-Lewis, also playing a guy in a wheelchair, but one with a British accent. The film did win two other Oscars, for best director and best editing; it also made about $70 million in the U.S. in 1989 after a budget of about $32 million, and made even more money elsewhere around the world. And by the way, Willem Dafoe is also very good as another disabled soldier Kovic meets in Mexico.

Universal's Born on the Fourth of July: Special Edition, which improves upon their previous release, comes with a modicum of extras. The source print for this widescreen transfer (2.35:1) is not the best in the world, showing dust, marks, scratches, and graininess. Audio is in Dolby Digital 5.1. The most significant extra on the disc is an audio commentary by Stone. There are no revelations herein, but his verbiage is carefully timed to the visuals to bring viewers' attention to several spectacular shots as they are happening, shots that otherwise might have gone by too fast. Stone also explains how he made the Vietnam sequences visually distinct from those in Platoon or Heaven and Earth, and he describes his interpretation of Kovic's personality, revealing that he also met Kovic's mother — which goes a long way, Stone says, in explaining Kovic's personality. For the most part, fans of the film will find his new commentary a valuable listen.

— D. K. Holm

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