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Born on the Fourth of July (1989)

Reviewed by Tom Ender

“A story of innocence lost and courage found.“

Although the word “jingoism” appears to have come into usage in 19th century Great Britain, the attitude it represents became quite popular in America during the post-World War Two (WW2) era. For a large segment of the US populace anti-Communism became a fervently held -- nearly religious -- belief system which many thought justified repeated military intervention abroad. The US involvement in Vietnam began with stated intentions to contain Communism. “American exceptionalism,” which may have given rise to earlier doctrines such as “manifest destiny,” may also, at least in part, have fired the post-WW2 US-variant of jingoism. Oliver Stone's movie based on Ron Kovic's autobiographical account of events from the period of US involvement in Vietnam remains extremely relevant to Americans today.

Born in 1946, Ron Kovic qualifies as an early cohort baby-boomer. The America depicted as Kovic grows up has so thoroughly changed that it may seem almost unrecognizable to those born later in the 20th century. The film opens on a childhood scene of young boys in the woods emulating their father's WW2 adventures by playing soldiers. The 4th of July parades and little league baseball shown can still be found in some smaller towns in the USA, but once they were pervasive across America.

Ron Kovic (Tom Cruise) does not escape the prevailing attitudes of his middle American town. He wishes to partake in the same "great adventures" which occupied his father (Raymond J. Barry) and many men of that generation during WW2. When a Marine recruiter (Tom Berenger) comes to his Massapequa high school and gives a “stirring” speech, Ron signs up. In a manner typical of high school kids of the era, something he says to others messes up his chances of taking “his girl”: Donna (Kyra Sedgwick) to the prom before he leaves for boot camp. However, a memorable prom scene still occurs.

The scene changes to several years later, skipping boot camp, unlike another excellent film examination of the Marines during the Vietnam era in Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket. The events of one day in Vietnam change Ron's life drastically forever, leaving him paralyzed from the chest down as well as giving him other heavy emotional burdens.

Most of the movie shows Ron's life after he returns to the USA: changes in his home town and family, his trouble adjusting to his paralysis and the consequences of carrying the other burdens from that terrible day. Ron finds that his younger brother Tommy (Josh Evans) opposes the war. At a July 4th event he reconnects with childhood friend Tim (Frank Whaley) who has also changed from his own Vietnam experience. He travels to Syracuse to visit Donna, now a campus antiwar activist. In observing campus events around the time of the Kent State and Jackson State tragedies, Ron's already softening jingoistic attitudes alter significantly. Although his father remains sympathetic, Ron's altered views cause troubles between him and his mother (Caroline Kava). He travels to Mexico seeking some solution to his many problems.

The Vietnam war ended quite a while ago. Communism does not seriously threaten the USA or its allies. However, instead of a peace dividend, jingoistic forces have brought forth a new bogey man about which to focus bellicose sentiments. So, in addition to historical interest, unfortunately this film remains very relevant to Americans, whose government continues to militarily intervene around the world. Those wars produce many wounded (and dead) who, with their families and friends, suffer permanent consequences. For its insight into war and American society, Born on the Fourth of July richly deserves and justly receives my strong recommendation.

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