On Screen: Patronizing Patriots

Born on the Fourth of July

Screenplay by Ron Kovic and Oliver Stone

Directed by Oliver Stone

Oliver Stone’s trump card of casting for his film, Born on the Fourth of July, wasn’t Tom Cruise, though Cruise gives an estimable performance as Ron Kovic, the paralyzed Marine turned anti-war activist. Stone’s real coup was the employment of composer John Williams. No matter what subject he is assigned, Williams always makes you think of the heartland of America. Yet, it is Oliver Stone’s genius (or whatever you want to call it) not to use Williams’ music in a straightforward way, letting its patriotic rapture wash over the audience. No, Stone stages his scenes in sarcastic counterpoint to the music. Williams’ music tells you that America is big and innocent and noble; Stone’s imagery tells you that something sick is loose in the land.

Under the opening credits we see the Eden of Ron Kovic’s Long Island childhood: an Independence Day parade, autumnal scenery, little league baseball, the stirrings of romance in children teetering on the verge of adolescence, cheerleaders, Mom and Dad, and hot dogs. But there are several serpents already slithering through the uneasy Eden. The legless veterans in a patriotic parade stare balefully at the crowd. When Ron’s mother croons to her child, (actually born July 4), “My little Yankee Doodle boy,” she is photographed to seem large-jawed and ferocious. Little leaguer Ron hits a home run and his girlfriend screams as orgiastically as a Roman matron watching a gladiator impaled. On the soundtrack, Williams’ music booms: “Here is the America you love.” But on screen, the director keeps whispering, “The land you love is full of gremlins.”

Most striking of all is the very first glimpse we get of little Ron. He is playing soldier with other boys and is armed as they are with plastic burp guns. As the children stalk each other through falling golden leaves, we hear music that is as seriously menacing as what we would hear during a combat scene in any average war movie. And when the boys execute a mock attack on one of their cornered playmates, the camera leaps forward as if an actual killing were being captured on film. The implication is clear: even in their childish play, America’s youths are being trained for something awful. America is an incubator of killers.

This is not the same vision as David Lynch’s in Blue Velvet, in which genuinely nice American kids fall through the cracks of civilization into hidden pits of corruption. No, Oliver Stone is saying that America itself is the corruption. In Blue Velvet, evil crawls out of the woodwork. In Born on the Fourth of July, evil (militaristic violence) is always out in the open, it is approved of, it is our way of life.

Once the credits are over, Stone pounds his points home and I do mean pound. During Kovic’s adolescence everybody seems to have been a drill instructor. There is Mom screaming at her son to mash his opponent in a high school wrestling tournament and then taking on a hurt, betrayed look when Ron instead is pinned. There is the coach screaming at his boys to climb those ropes, ladies! There on TV is President Kennedy (that gorgeously maned warmonger!) urging his fellow citizens not to ask what their country can do for them but what they, etc., etc. Even the manager of the local A&P gets into the act by sending his stock boys —one of them is Ron—hurtling down aisles to terminate with extreme prejudice out-of-date sale mark-downs.

When the inevitable Marine recruiter shows up at a high school assembly and tells the boys that boot camp is “13 weeks in hell,” I couldn’t help wondering why this should impress them. After all, as Oliver Stone portrays it, an American childhood is boot camp, it is 16 years in hell.

Born on the Fourth of July‘s narrative unfolds in seven cleanly divided segments: each ends with a fade to black and a few seconds of darkness, as if the director were allowing us to take a breath before launching us into the next circle of hell: childhood and adolescence; Viet Nam; doubtful rehabilitation in a veterans hospital; homecoming and alienation from family; a Mexican interlude with bitter veterans seeking comfort from booze and whores; a visit to Georgia in which Kovic seeks forgiveness from the family of a fellow soldier whom he might have killed accidentally during a fouled-up mission; protest against the war during the 1972 Republican Convention. And then a coda in which Kovic is honored and implicitly vindicated during the 1978 Democratic Convention.

None of the sequences following the first has its inflated, hysterical quality. Maybe Stone, having made his sweepingly negative vision of America so clear so soon, decided to stick close to the minutiae of real people behaving and reacting in real situations. Since Stone is a good hand with actors and technicians, Born on the Fourth is often riveting, occasionally touching. Yet no sequence, except one, is altogether free of manipulativeness and ham-handed dramatics.

It was perhaps inevitable that the one wholly veracious episode would be the Viet Nam one. Stone, a combat veteran himself, showed in Platoon that he is a great portrayer of slaughter, pain, confusion, and death in battle. In Born, we see the same mastery working in a swifter, more compressed manner. Stone zeroes in on the confusions of warfare. “See them? See them?” the commander impatiently asks as he shoves binoculars into the hands of Sergeant Kovic, expecting Kovic to answer yes, he certainly does see the Viet Cong scuttling through the hamlet in the distance. But though Ron answers in the affirmative, we see what he actually glimpses: shadowy forms which may or may not belong to the enemy, and which turn out to be villagers who get slaughtered by Kovic’s unit. The sound of a still-living, bawling baby lying in its dead mother’s arms will echo in Kovic’s head for the rest of his life.

Extreme violence combined with extreme confusion about where that violence is to be applied equals madness. And it is understandable that during such madness a soldier may shoot at a body hurtling through the air only to discover, when that body thuds down, that it once was a nervous boy from Georgia whom his innocent killer had been trying to cheer up a few hours ago.

Stone later shows the crippling of Kovic so close up that we seem to be within the boy’s skull when the bullet shatters him. We can almost hear the spinal cord break.

So far, so great. And similar, surefire powerful moments recur throughout the movie. But the trouble with sure-fire powerful moments is that an endless series of them doesn’t really convey the texture of life. When Kovic is sent to a filthy, undersupplied Veterans Administration hospital, Stone seizes the opportunity to show you vomit on the floor, surly heroin-shooting attendants, and the mounting panic that occurs when life-support machines go on the fritz. You see the self-deceiving Kovic pounding about on his crutches, trying to believe that so much exercise for his arms is going to restore his legs, only to fall in a heap when he misses a beat. Whatever noise, special effects, and make-up can supply to convey horror, Stone uses. But what about this sort of horror that the real Kovic recorded in his memoir:

The nurse comes in and Garcia is getting real excited. “I think I pissed in my pants again,” he cries. ‘Mrs. Waters, I think I pissed in my pants.”

“Oh, Garcia,” the pretty nurse scolds, “don’t say piss, say urine. Urine is much nicer.”

Garcia tells her he is sorry and will call it urine from here on out.

The misplaced gentility of that nurse and the acquiescence of the shattered, attention-craving man to that gentility conveys a creepiness that is far more disturbing than vomit on the floor. But this is a horror rooted in character, not in filth and noise, and Stone, alas, too often relies on filth and noise to carry a scene. Thus, all the attendants (mostly black) at the hospital are portrayed as noisemakers: shouting encouragement or abuse at the vets, banging equipment about, and so on. But not one is given an idiosyncrasy like that nurse’s priggishness that would make him or her odd enough to be remembered as an individual rather than as a mere appurtenance of a medical inferno.

I began to wonder about why Kovic’s parents never visited him in the New York City hospital. After all, they lived on Long Island. It was this curiosity that spurred me to read the Kovic book. In fact, the parents did visit. But . . . “I never tell my family when they come about the enema room. . . . I hide all that from them and talk about the other, more pleasant things, the things they want to hear.” Of course, to convey that sort of interplay between groping, well-meaning, self-deceiving individuals would require exceedingly subtle writing, acting and directing. Much easier to rattle bedpans and charge the air with shouted obscenities.

After Kovic comes home, Stone does give us some fine interplay between the vet and his parents and, even better, between Kovic and an old friend, also a vet.

Tucked into the middle of this homecoming sequence is a near-romance between Kovic and an old girlfriend, now caught up in war-protesting at Syracuse University. Kovic, who’s thus far had a “love it or leave it” attitude towards protestors (including his brother), is so attracted to this girl that he reins in his resentment and accompanies her to a rally. The police break it up and drag the girl away to a paddywagon. Then she simply vanishes from the movie.

What are we to make of this? That she spent so long a time in jail that Kovic lost touch with her? No protestor I knew ever spent more than eight hours in jail before getting bailed out by his parents (actually, eighty minutes would be more like it). That Kovic wasn’t interested in seeing her again? The way lovely Kyra Sedgwick is photographed, with her honey blond hair backlit like a crown of glory, you feel sure that Kovic would wait for her forever. Do her views repel him? No, he seems to be coming to share them. Is he afraid that he won’t be able to function sexually with her? Perhaps, but even later in the movie, after Kovic has learned from an encounter with a prostitute that he can enjoy lovemaking, we never find out whether he tried to get in touch with his childhood sweetheart again.

I think I know why Stone makes the girl disappear. If she didn’t, she and Kovic would become closer, exchange views, really come to know each other. And, to repeat myself, that situation would require some subtle writing, etc., etc. Stone is more interested in noise, violence, and socko, surefire, kiss-kiss, bang-bang situations.

With which the next segment, the Mexican visit, is packed. The visit to the prostitute, which in the book is a funny, touching encounter between two kids who spend as much time talking as they do lovemaking (“He held her in his arms as if she were his sister as well as his lover”) becomes a scene as steamy as anything in Last Tango in Paris.

Kovic’s first motion towards redemption is to visit the family of the boy whom he probably killed by mistake. This is another virtuoso scene, but here the virtuosity is of a quiet kind, a triumph of authentic-looking locale, shrewd art direction, perfect casting, dialogue so distilled that each line carries dramatic weight, subtle acting that reaches the layers of meaning beneath the dialogue. The faces of the dead boy’s parents and young widow are like the faces of the sharecroppers who stare out at us with such unselfconscious mournfulness from the Walker Evans photographs in Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. These are yeomen of English stock, probably Baptist, whose idea of an enjoyable Saturday night may be a visit to the local Pizza Hut and two or three hours of television evangelism. They epitomize their class’s admirable and infuriating blend of courage, compassion, and passivity. The father speaks with pride of the fact that every gene ration of his family has lost at least one young man in every conflict. He serenely predicts that his dead son’s son, now cradled in the teenaged mother’s arms, will probably serve in some future passage of arms. Kovic stumbles towards his confession. The family is stunned but not angered. The wife can only tell Kovic (without rancor) to seek God’s forgiveness since she has none to give. But the mother touches the vet and does clearly express her forgiveness. Meanwhile, the baby continues to bawl.

In an otherwise perceptive review in The New Republic, Stanley Kauffmann complains that we don’t really see the change in Kovic “from a gung-ho volunteer-and-veteran into an anti-war activist.” He rightly notes that the high school sweetheart isn’t shown as having much (ideological) influence on him. But I think that Stone (and/or Kovic?) does provide this moment of change, and the funny thing about this moment is that it is both subtly executed and subtly patronizing in its implications.

The change comes when Kovic regards the family at the moment of the mother’s forgiveness, and the baby’s bawling registers on his consciousness. The crying of the Vietnamese infant lying in his slaughtered mother’s arms has been echoing in Kovic’s mind ever since the fouled-up patrol. (Trying to speak at a patriotic gathering, Ron became tongue-tied when a baby in the audience cried.) Now he realizes that this barely literate, apolitical, pre-political family will willingly give their progeny to serve in future conflicts, starting with that crying child Ron is now looking at. No war protestor will come from this family, no pacifists, so Kovic himself will protest. Kovic will save this family (and a thousand others) from the sacrifice they are perfectly willing to make. He will save them from themselves.

The trouble with this resolve is that it is itself pre-political. It doesn’t explain what was wrong with the particular war that Kovic will protest. It is a position that can find fault with any war — the defense of the Norwegians against the Nazis, the war of American colonies against the British, even fragmented skirmishes like violent black protest against apartheid — because any armed struggle comprehends the slaughter and maiming of innocents, and such slaughter is the one and only spur to Kovic’s protest, not any injustice of this war.

At one point in the following protest scenes, Kovic does tell a reporter that America shouldn’t fight in Viet Nam because “those people” have been fighting for their independence for years, and we have no right to stop them. I assume that “those people” are the North Vietnamese since the people once known as South Vietnamese are now “boat people” and are still fighting pathetically for their independence by scrambling to places like Hong Kong and the United States. Such pseudo-political babble is unworthy of the psychological and physical pain so well rendered in the bulk of this movie.

Unfortunately, it’s precisely this babble, not his bravery or endurance, that makes Kovic a hero fit for Stone. In the epilogue, in which Kovic wheels himself onto the stage of the 1976 Democratic convention to speak for his fellow veterans, Cruise is photographed in a holy nimbus; people — especially beautiful young girls — lean forward to touch him as he wheels by and murmur their admiration in voices so breathless with adoration that Born seems about to turn into Gandhi. Ron wheels toward an auditorium entrance that is flooded with light as it opens to him. Is he entering the auditorium or is he ascending to heaven? If the latter, was the nomination of Jimmy Carter made in heaven? Oliver Stone seems to think so as he floods the screen with celestial radiance and once again turns up John Williams’ music, this time without irony, in full agreement with the composer that America, or at least this America of 1976, is a land of perfect justice, perfect equality.

I think of Ron Kovic’s admirable book as an honest, blunt account of the breaking of a body by war and the terrible damage done to the spirit within that broken body. The anguish Kovic felt transcends all arguments for or against any particular war. The heat of the book comes from Kovic’s outcry at the diminishment of life by the torture that war inflicts. Kovic’s anger at what has happened to him is unanswerable.

The movie derived from this pure book, however, is a heated-up, politicized melodrama which spirals upward into phony triumph. Judging by the way it ends, this movie seems to suggest that Kovic might be grateful for his injury because it has liberated him from the phony Eden of Long Island, from gimlet-eyed Mom, from castrated Dad, from Veterans Day parades and Fourth of July picnics, from bullying coaches and chauvinistic Presidents. It saved him from the horror of believing in America.

But that particular horror is not in Ron Kovic’s book (though he has plenty of contempt for the way Americans can daze themselves with patriotic noise). That horror of America (or Amerika) is entirely a part of the geography of Oliver Stone’s feverish imagination. The pity is that Stone, with his great manipulative skill and the great skills of his technicians and actors, has appropriated a real man’s real agony and made it just so much grist for his anti-American movie-making mill.


  • Richard Alleva

    At the time he wrote this review, Richard Alleva was a free-lance writer living in Washington D.C. He still works as a film critic for publications such as Commonweal today.

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