I must admit that I did find myself a little bit worried that Oliver Stone wouldn't be able to handle something with this much subtlety, considering all of the crazy, super-stylish films that he made before this, like the one about corruption within Wall Street stocks, and, especially, the ones that he did after this, like the one about the JFK assassination conspiracy, or the one about Richard Nixon, or the one about Alexander the Great, or, of course, the one about football. ...Huh, not even I can tell if I'm being sarcastic, because those films were surprisingly a little bit nutty and overstylized, though I suppose that's what happens when you have films dealing with controversial subjects being written and directed by a drug-using Vietnam veteran. Hey, say what you will about Stone, but as he taught us, stylish and controversial makes for good Oscar bait, though if you want a surefire win, your better bet is a film about an undereducated but good-hearted black man who befriends and changes the life of an old, wealthy white woman in the South, during pre-Civil Rights. With something like "Driving Miss Daisy" getting an Oscar push, a film like this, even with its subject matter, would be lucky to even be remembered when the Oscars started bait shopping at the end of '89, and it came out in December, though I think the reason why this film made many a shortlist come Oscar time is because even the Oscars knew that "Driving Miss Daisy", while pretty decent, wasn't terribly upstanding. I mean, they still had to give the Oscar, because, again it was about an undereducated but good-hearted black man who befriends and changes the life of an old, wealthy white woman in the South, during pre-Civil Rights, though they probably weren't terribly proud of it. They couldn't be any less proud about that film sweeping the Awards than me, because although I liked "Driving Miss Daisy", if any film deserved to win Best Picture, then it was this film. Oh no, this film isn't terribly upstanding either, it's just that it was going up against "Field of Dreams" (Which I still liked), "My Left Foot" (Which I still liked) and "Bore Me to Death Poets Society" (I haven't completely seen it, but I still liked the bits and pieces that I've seen), and where those films were decent (Or at least what bits that I've seen from "Bore Me to-I mean "Dead Poets Society" are just decent), this film is not simply genuinely good, but extremely good, though still no knockout, and for a few reasons.
As with nearly every (Yeah, sure, "nearly") Oliver Stone film, things get to be overbearing, with style that's not quite as pronounced as it is in other Stone films, to where it will sometimes get stressed to the point of knocking you out of the resonance (By this time, Stone was about five years and an oil drum of acid away from "Natural Born Killers"), yet remains bound to become a little bit too much, and after a while, you're kind of exhausted, partially because the storytelling is faithful to the style's kind of obviousness. This is one of your more subtle Oliver Stone efforts, but come on, it's still Oliver Stone, and his ambitions of creating an emotionally intense tribute to the fighters, sufferers and dyers of 'Nam, as well as Ron Kovic himself, is all too palpable. During the Vietnam segment and subsequent hosiptal segment, brutality is overemphasized through overwhelmingly frenetic noise, broken up by, if not married with the occasional overly unsubtle disturbing image, and while there's still enough inspiration in Stone's atmosphere setting to keep this film's more brutal segments from going full-on "Saving Private Ryan", where it's superfluous to the point of being unintelligent and offensive (For the record, I still love "Saving Private Ryan" much more than this film, but come on Steve, I don't need to see someone trying to hold his guts in while he's crying for his mama), it's still a bit too much for you to get a terribly human feel for the horrors that people like Stone and, especially, Kovic faced. Outside of the battlefield and hospitals, the resonance goes tainted by a degree of sentimentality, both before and, certainly, after Kovic's time in 'Nam, that ranges from passable to fairly glaring. I wouldn't say that the obviousness of the emotion crushes Stone's resonance, though with the acts of sentimentality being so clear, as well as even familiar, it decidedly hurts it. Were Oliver Stone less, well, Oliver Stone in his execution of this respectably inspired project, it would have rung more true and ultimately stood as a powerhouse portrait on war and people's views, both respectful and disrespectful, on such a sensitive subject. However, the overwhelmingness of this film only bumps its effectiveness down a few notches from heart-wrenchingly piercing, and while that is enough to keep this film from being bang-pow solid, the final product has enough juice in it to stand as utterly inspiring; it's certainly aesthetically commendable.
By 1989, Robert Richardson was still reasonably new to the scene, so he hadn't yet mastered his, well, masterful cinematography skills, though he was close enough in the development of his own skill, as well as his now-notoriously remarkably comfortable collaborative relationship with Oliver Stone's tastes in style for this film to really catch your eye. Sure, Stone may exploit moments in Richardson's work to supplement the aforementioned occasional piece of overstylizing, yet on the whole, Richardson gives the film a lively grace, as well as a gripping grit that's both visually handsome and striking to the atmosphere, really powering the resonance, which wouldn't be as powerful as it is were it not for the man who admittedly kept it from being more powerful. The overambition, sentimentality and overall unsubtlty taint the effectiveness within Stone's storytelling, yet on the whole, the inspiration in Stone's direction works much more to a remarkable effect than detrimental, because whether he's capturing the pain in Ron Kovic's story or the very controversy-ridden yet still, in some spots, reasonably charmingly simple era (with the help a really good soundtrack), Stone plants you into the world and takes you through an experience that is quite decidedly bumpy, yet ultimately very rewarding. This story and its subject matter is surprisingly unique and obviously worthy, and while Stone doesn't always work his telling of such a powerful story with extreme ease, he still manages to draw much depth and humanity from both the story itself and its message, making it feel relevant and stand as immensely provocative, which of course makes the emotional resonace that does transcend the unsubtlties all the more intense. Stone's impassioned (As many times as I've heard that word used in reviews of this film, I may as well as join the craze) direction is still a little too spotty for this film to be full-on excellent, yet on the whole, it really brings it to life, though Stone doesn't doesn't take through such a compelling experience alone. Whether it be Raymond Barry's and Caroline Kava's emotion as Kovic's confused and concerned parents, or Frank Whaley's subtle anguish as a fellow veteran who had seen more than he'd care to mention, or a young Kyra Sedgwick's, well, not really having too much do other than be very pretty, many a performer grips your attention and really wins your investment, yet it's Tom Cruise who really steals the show. Ron Kovic is initially ambitious, yet upon heading into the horrors of war, he becomes a broken and disturbed man who returns home never to be the same, but instead a man with his eyes open to the flaws of the ignorant and his heart set on telling the world his tale, and it's a transformation that Cruise portrays with crushing intensity, layers, emotion and overall passion, capturing both the anguish and spirit within Kovic to a transformative degree, and it really takes your breath away to see Cruise effortlessly and phenomenally carry this character study, standing up there with Stone as one of the key components to this film's emerging both a riveting acting piece for Cruise and ultimately satisfying drama, by its own right.
Bottom line, the film gets to be rather overwhelming, both stylistically and emotionally, being tainted by the overambition, sentimentality and even a few of the conventions that land a brutal blow to the subtlty within the depth of the film, thus leaving the final product to fall short of full-on excellent, though not fall all that far, as the film catches your eye with Robert Richardson's typically handsome cinemtography and your investment with Oliver Stone's, albeit flawed, but generally commendably inspired direction, which gives you a genuine, immersive and, of course, provocative feel for this world and Kovic's story, and with a strong cast - headed by a remarkably emotional, layered and transformative Tom Cruise - serving as icing on the cake, "Born on the Fourth of July" ultimately stands as a moving and thought-provoking dramatisation of the heartbreaking story of Ron Kovic and the still fairly relevant discussion on what goes unrealized by those off of the battlefield and how the battlefield affects those who return from it.
3/5 - Good