A blatant deconstruction of American iconography, Born on the Fourth of July operates more elegantly as a repudiation of masculinity. The movie asks what it really means to be an American, but it’s also asking—with unexpected rawness and vulnerability, given that the director is Oliver Stone—what it means to be a man.
Based on the autobiography of Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic, who shared co-screenwriting credit (and an Oscar nomination) with Stone, Born on the Fourth of July tells the tale of an eager recruit who jumps at the chance to fight, comes home paralyzed, and after deprogramming by misery becomes a leading voice for veterans against the war. It’s one man’s political disillusionment, depicted with the aggressive intent of creating disillusionment in us all.
Stone employs his bludgeoning tactics right from the opening credits, depicting a Fourth of July parade in the late 1950s in garish slow motion, with saturated colors and ghoulish grins. It’s like a Norman Rockwell painting in which everything, including the hue, is a bit off. Most of the rest of the movie is equally in your face: Ron’s tortured bedroom prayer before leaving for bootcamp; the atrocities he witnesses (and is a part of) in Vietnam; and the political screaming matches he has with his mother upon returning home.
Going on in the background, however, is a more nuanced exploration of what was considered “manly” in mid-century America—and what it might have been like to have this manliness taken away. Even before he’s sent to war, Ron (Tom Cruise) has been indoctrinated to believe that manhood comprises four elemental things: physicality, violence, victory, and the admiration of women. While Stone uses a megaphone to communicate his movie’s political theme, he’s less obvious about evoking these four touchstones. We instead understand them through the background details and incidental scenes. Ron is an athlete (there’s the physicality) in a sport that emphasizes violence (“I want you to kill!” his wrestling coach screams during practice). Victory is prized above all (when Ron loses a match, he’s devastated), while the admiration of women is intertwined with all of these things. In the two instances Ron notices a girl watching him, he happens to be playing sports.
To join the military and win a war is, then, a way to achieve each of these benchmarks and thereby become a man. When a Marine recruiter (Tom Berenger) arrives at Ron’s school, he puts it in precisely these terms: “You find out if you really are men.” Ron goes to Vietnam expecting to confirm his manhood, but instead he has it taken away.
Consider, after all, how each of those four qualities are diminished by his paralysis. Physicality is severely limited, a given fact that nevertheless punches us in the gut for the subtle way Stone emphasizes it. When Ron comes home, his father (Raymond J. Barry) tries to give him a cheery tour of all the ways he’s modified the rooms so that Ron will be comfortable. But he eventually just crumples over into his son’s chair for a silent, helpless hug. Another quietly incredible moment between these two takes place after a drunken Ron rips out his catheter in a tirade. Later, as Ron is passing out in his bed, his father reattaches the tubing, a gesture Stone films in discreet silhouette.
If Ron’s physicality is diminished, so is his capacity for violence, something that’s clear when he futilely tries to start a bar fight from his wheelchair. His inability to capture the attention of women is emphasized by a dreary odyssey to a debauched community of veterans in Mexico, where brothels offer willing women of all kinds—as long as you pay. As for winning, that last defining element of manhood, what could Ron win now? Even when he’s the wounded guest of honor at a Fourth of July parade (distinctly filmed in dingier tones than the opening parade sequence), he’s not celebrated as a military victor, but bum-rushed by hippies protesting the war.
Seeing Born on the Fourth of July as a tale of American masculinity undone also might explain why Stone chose Tom Cruise (beyond the fact that he was the world’s biggest movie star at the time, just a few years away from his own piece of propagandistic American iconography, Top Gun). Cruise has always been, first and foremost, a physical actor, as famous for his smile as for the way he runs (like a bullet in search of a Kevlar vest). It’s a double shock, then, to not only see a young man stripped of his physicality, but to see it happen to the unstoppable Tom Cruise. He was probably nominated for the Oscar for one of those screaming matches with Caroline Kava as Kovic’s mother, but I prefer to think that it was for the scene in which Kovic, having been told he’ll never walk again, insists on doing daily physical therapy. Hanging limply from crutches, he insists he’s making progress, but it’s clear he’s only become better at dragging his dead legs. That’s a Tom Cruise moment if I’ve ever seen one.
If Born on the Fourth of July essentially spends much of its running time debunking mid-century America’s idea of manhood, does the movie offer an alternative vision as a counter? I’m not sure. The final sections focus on Ron as an anti-war activist, involved in protests that get physical and are geared to win. Yet there’s a different tenor to the movie’s depiction of Ron here (as well as Cruise’s portrayal). There is a new openness and humility, both physical and emotional, as in the confession he shares with the family of a fellow soldier who was killed in friendly fire under his command. In a sense, Ron has become weak. In a sense, he’s admitting that he lost. Yet Born on the Fourth of July also suggests that in losing his manhood, Ron Kovic gained his humanity.