Plot: What’s it about?
The second film in Oliver Stone’s so-called Vietnam trilogy, “Born on the Fourth of July” is an unflinching, devastating film. This is the true story of Ron Kovic, a Vietnam veteran who is wounded in battle and paralyzed from the chest down. The film begins in Ron’s hometown of Massapequa, Long Island and takes us on a journey into, out of, and through war. In both the literal and metaphorical sense, Ron’s war is shown here in brutal, vivid detail. We see the events in Vietnam that will ultimately scar him for life. We see his long, grueling recovery in a substandard veteran’s hospital. We see his humiliation and heartbreak upon returning home to a world he once loved to find a sea of hatred and discrimination waiting for him. This is a difficult film to watch. And that’s not necessarily because of the blood and guts (of which there is plenty in the film’s early war scenes) or the relentless onslaught of vulgarity (this movie has to take some kind of award for the most expletives ever to appear in one place). None of this would have any impact or meaning without powerful direction and performances. Fortunately, this film is truly blessed on both counts.
Tom Cruise is incredible in this film. I just wanted to get that out of the way as I’m sure this review is meeting the eyes of more than a few Tom haters out there. But for anyone with an aversion to “pretty boy” Cruise, I direct you strongly in the direction of “Born on the Fourth of July”. Not only is he nearly unrecognizable in many scenes, but his performance is absolutely mesmerizing. In fact, if not for the incredible power of Tom Cruise’s portrayal of Ron Kovic, this film would be just another movie about the mistreatment of war veterans. I am convinced even today that this is Cruise’s best performance to date (and this is coming from a Cameron Crowe fanatic). The rest of the cast is excellent as well, albeit without the pressure of carrying the film on their shoulders. Jerry Levine was a particularly good choice for young Ron. A few of his facial expressions look incredibly Cruise-like early on in the film. Frank Whaley is also very good as Ron’s friend Timmy who has post-war problems of his own. Kyra Sedgewick and Willem Dafoe stick their heads in with a few important scenes as well. Dafoe is particularly strong, though his character is (unavoidably) one-note.
While this is not a perfect film by any means, it is undeniably powerful. The cinematography is extremely diverse, ranging from a traditional palette (young Ron’s scenes) and washed out reddish-brown (Vietnam) to lush and vibrant (post-war), this movie’s visual style is all over the place. Yet somehow there is a cohesion here that not only makes the images flow well together, but also presents us with that quintessential Oliver Stone style. Every frame of this film simply breathes with passionate commitment and personal understanding. There’s never any doubt that you’re watching the work of people who believe wholeheartedly in this project. Ron Kovic’s story as presented here is a lesson for everyone about the horrors of war and the consequences that endure for those who fight them long after the last round is fired. This is my personal favorite of Stone’s films, and I’m giving it my highest recommendation for those unfamiliar or even curious about his work. If nothing else, see this as an historical document through the eyes of an uncompromising filmmaker. This picture is a great example of the raw power this medium can achieve when it attempts to be a window to the world rather than a glossy Hollywood carbon copy.
Video: How does it look?
Finally! Universal has released “Born on the Fourth of July” no less than four times since the impetus of the format, and it’s frankly been one letdown after another. The earlier releases all featured a non-anamorphic transfer that was essentially a demo disc for what not to do on DVD. Aliasing, color bleeding, excessive grain, interlacing problems, compression issues, an overall lack of fine detail, and an absolutely unforgivable level of edge-enhancement has pretty much reserved this title’s place in the DVD hall of shame for the last several years. But that was then. Universal has, at long last, treated this film with respect. Virtually none of the aforementioned issues plague this new transfer, and the results are nothing short of revelatory. I popped in my old version of the film and watched a one scene from start to finish. Then I put this bad boy in and watched the same scene over again. What a difference! The old disc is now unwatchable in my opinion. This new incarnation simply blows it right out of the water. This isn’t simply a matter of fixing problems that were pre-existing. This is a completely new effort from top to bottom. The entire presentation has been given a complete and total overhaul, setting this release high above the previous standard, DTS, Collector’s Edition, and Oliver Stone Collection versions. That’s not to say that this is perfect. There is a grainy quality that pervades over the opening credit sequence, but it promptly goes away once the film gets going. Contrast is a bit too pumped up here and there, and there are a few tiny bits of debris on the print here and there, but really, this is by far the best this title has ever looked at home. If you haven’t picked up one of the earlier discs, avoid them at all costs. If you have, you’re going to want to go for a double-dip for this transfer alone. It’s that good.
Audio: How does it sound?
One area this movie has always delivered on is sound. Three Dolby Digital 5.1 versions and one DTS 5.1 version have been released over the years. Here we get the best of both worlds. While these appear to be the same Dolby and DTS mixes that have been previously released, that’s not a bad thing in this case. Both audio options are for the majority of the film, but aggresive and powerful when the action calls for it. Transparency is very convincing and there is no harshness to be found in the presentation. Your subwoofer will get quite a workout during the Vietnam scenes, especially on the DTS track (which takes the slight edge on this disc for overall clarity and minute subtleties that make for a more enveloping experience). This may not be one of the most awe-inspiring tracks out there, but it’s one of the best nonetheless. Spanish and French subtitles are available, as well as a French Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround track.
Supplements: What are the extras?
The main attraction here is going to be the episode of “Backstory”, which is essentially a 20-minute featurette on the making of the film. The real Ron Kovic is on hand to share some insights, as well as Oliver Stone and Tom Cruise. This is a very good piece of extra material. I was especially pleased to see Mr. Kovic personally discussing the film. The featurette ends on a poignant note and is very well executed. The previously released commentary track by Stone is included for the third time around here, and it’s well worth a listen. This is one of the more engaging commentaries I’ve heard recently (I previously owned the version of the film without this commentary), and I highly recommend it if you’re a fan of the film. Unfortunately, no theatrical trailer is included here. Strangely, the trailer has never been an extra on the (now) five DVD releases of the film.