It’s interesting just how much your perception of a film can change over time. Before sitting down to write this review, I re-read my previous review of this same film and was surprised at just how enamored I was with it just a few years ago. That’s not to say that I don’t still appreciate Oliver Stone’s devastatingly tragic portrayal of post-Vietnam life for war veteran Ron Kovic. It’s also not that I don’t still hold Tom Cruise’s searing performance in as high esteem as I did then. Indeed, if anything holds up about “Born on the Fourth of July” for me, it’s the raw power of what Cruise does with the material. Now having over two decades of subsequent work on which to judge him as an actor, in fact, it becomes even clearer now just how rare and daring a picture it was for Cruise to attempt. I can’t think of many times the actor has branched so far out of his macho comfort zone as this, and I still consider it a strong candidate for his best work. As for Stone, I’ve come to enjoy “JFK” a bit more than “Born on the Fourth of July” in the intervening years. The irony is that my opinion of this work back when I originally reviewed the DVD was most likely a bit more fair. As it stands now, though, I can’t help but find myself divided uncomfortably by the politics presented within. It’s isn’t so much that Stone’s film is really forging any new ground by saying that the Vietnam war was fought for the wrong reasons or that an entire generation of young men were sent to fight a battle that was essentially unwinnable. And the veteran-turned-activist angle is fine for what it is – a true account of the emotional journey taken by one man who almost certainly endured one of the worst series of life events imaginable from this tumultuous period in American history. No, my problem with the movie is in its attempt to make Kovic an “every solider”. It’s clear that Stone is painting with broad, generalized strokes that urge us not only to empathize with Kovic as an individual, but to empathize with every soldier who enlisted through the eyes of this singular, soul-crushing experience.
At the risk of my belief that reviews should, by and large, exist in a vacuum, I feel I must convey something that may inform my change of heart with regard to this particular film. I was recently made aware – vicariously – of a certain Vietnam veteran who took particular issue with this movie on various fronts, from its depiction of combat to its heavy-handed soap-boxing on the “baby killers” topic. Not only did he feel these elements of the movie were unrealistic (at least based on his own experiences), but he found one other element to be even more troublesome. Through my moviegoer’s eye, I can see this as a great piece of film. Through this third party’s eyes, the film was, if anything, insulting. The attempt to make Ron Kovic a representative of every veteran of Vietnam runs the risk of asserting – incorrectly – that they all came to want to protest what they’d been through and those in a place of political power who sent them there to endure it. For years, in fact, this cinematic conceit informed my own perspective on the Vietnam War in a way I’m ashamed to admit I was all too willing to swallow without any attempt at delving deeper. While no one would argue that the war itself was a “good” thing, there were – and are – many veterans who simply don’t consider the actions of Kovic here to be acceptable. And it’s a hard argument to know which side to fall on. Stone’s protagonist may well have turned against the establishment in Washington and joined the anti-war movement out of a sense of duty not only to avenge himself, but to warn others against having their lives irreparably and tragically altered as he had. On the other hand, in doing so, he may also have betrayed what many consider to be an even greater loyalty to his service brothers, many of whom were just leaving the safe shores of the United States and may have almost certainly felt undermined by the increasingly vocal dissent rising at home.
And so, while none of this admittedly takes away from “Born on the Fourth of July” as a film, I do think that it’s an interesting contrast in how your own personal introspection and political second-guessing can help you to re-evaluate a film. I still do like this picture, but I found it a far more divisive and one-sided argument this time around. What happened to Ron Kovic in Vietnam was certainly a terrible tragedy, and it does – to a point – serve as a parable for everything that happened to everyone. But it also isn’t all that there is to say on the subject, and it doesn’t speak to the pride and the legacy of every soldier who sacrificed themselves for a cause they considered greater than themselves, misguided though the conflict itself may have been. What ultimately diminishes the undeniable power of Stone’s film is its attempt to say that it is and that it does. Ron Kovic’s story is one that, while terrible and heart-wrenching, also has the misfortune of encapsulating just about every cliché you’ve probably ever heard, read, or seen about the Vietnam War. So much so that it seems like Stone is trying to say everything he felt about those things in the span of a two and a half hour piece of film, which unfortunately just can’t come across any other way than preachy and manipulative. The sad thing is that this is a story that should be told. It’s one that needs telling and, I would argue, re-telling to inform the consciousness of future Americans who, not having learned from the mistakes of such a past, may find themselves doomed to repeat it. It’s a shame, then, that Oliver Stone found himself in 1989 seeing a culturally-defining and inherently unsettling period in our history through such a myopic lens. The cast and crew of this admittedly powerful film, and even Ron Kovic himself deserve a lot more than that. But more importantly, so do all of the other soldiers who gave of themselves in Vietnam, whose selfless heroism here remains unsung.
Video: How’s it Look?
While I wouldn’t say that “Born on the Fourth of July” runs any risk of becoming this year’s demo disc of choice, it’s a solid, true-to-the-source VC-1 HD upgrade. While their track record for bringing their catalog titles into the 21st century has been a bit troubled, Universal avoids many of the issues that have marred some of their other recent releases. I mentioned in my DVD review that Stone’s choice of shooting styles ran the gamut of light and dark, and ranged from colorful to near-sepia. Never has this hyper-stylized approach to the film been as apparent as on this new blu-ray edition. The early scenes in Massapequa have a style all their own. The Norman Rockwellian palette does tend to keep things a bit washed out and hazy, but the blu-ray excels at bringing out as much fine detail as is likely present in the source. Once things shift to Vietnam, the film becomes far darker and more awash in sickly reds and deep blacks, and the new transfer is again up to the task. Faring even better is the bulk of the film, taking place back in the United States after Ron’s injury. Finally, the choice is made for a naturalistic feel, and we finally get a sense of how this disc looks on an empirical basis. There is an inherent softness to the image that holds the film back from a top-tier presentation, but I have no doubt that this was, again, a shooting choice and not the fault of this release. The old SD problems (yes, even on the last release I was so impressed with) are finally eradicated fully on blu-ray. If I have any issues to report at all, I did feel that the scene toward the beginning where the Marines come to the school to speak was a bit more contrasty than I recalled (and I’ve seen this film many times), so some minor tweaking may have been done here. But it’s nothing too egregious or that will take you out of the viewing experience. Also, I’d like to make clear that DNR has thankfully NOT been applied to this transfer. When I say it runs on the soft side, I mean only that the film itself has a soft feel to it, not that it has been smoothed over via digital manipulation. Considering Universal’s record of having trouble allowing these catalog titles look like film, I’ll take the softness of “Born on the Fourth of July” over the artificial sharpness of some of those other titles any day. Subtitles are available in English, French and Spanish.
Audio: How’s it Sound?
Those of you who owned Universal’s Special Edition DVD of “Born on the Fourth of July” will have a good idea of what to expect here. That set sported a strong DTS 5.1 mix that brought new life into John William’s stirring, emotional score and clarity to details that had been muddled on the film’s prior home video releases. The blu-ray takes things a notch higher with an excellent DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track that gives the movie that extra bit of realism that just isn’t quantifiable. As I’ve said, I’ve seen this film many times, but I’ve never heard it sound this good. Dialog is always perfectly clear and never overbearing (quite the accomplishment during the film’s more chaotic battle sequences). Directionality is superb during these scenes as well, with bullet and mortar fire coming at you from all channels. When things quiet down, the track continues to impress with a subtle immersion that never feels like a glorified stereo mix. This is a theatrical mix through and through, and one that makes the film’s emotionalism that much more palatable. This movie’s sound design has always been excellent, and may arguably be just as stylized as the visuals at time, and the Master Audio track conveys it all with a strong but never obtrusive presence. French and Spanish DD 5.1 tracks are also included.
Extras: What are the Goodies?
Universal has seen fit to carry over all of the extras from the Special Edition DVD here, so those upgrading to the blu-ray can feel safe getting rid of their old SD copy. Back for another tour of duty are “From the NBC News Archives – Backstory: Born on the Fourth of July” and the excellent and informative commentary by Oliver Stone that graced the previous edition. New to the set are two Universal promo pieces. The first is “100 Years of Universal: Academy Award Winners”. The second is “100 Years of Universal: The 80’s”. Those who’ve purchased Universal’s recent Anniversary titles know exactly what to expect from these pieces, and while they’re nice to have, I suppose, I was saddened to see that the film’s theatrical trailer is – once again – missing in action. While I love the packaging of these Anniversary titles, which feature gorgeous box art that gives us a nice look at the films’ original theatrical one-sheet poster and many interesting facts about those films and their respective eras, I really think Universal should start making trailers on these sets standard issue. A film’s advertising campaign is just as big a part of that film’s place in history as anything else, and I always enjoy seeing how a marketing campaign was run in context with the world in which that film was made. Now is the perfect time for the studio to recognize this as they attempt to preserve these works of art for future generations.