Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July may be the most tasteful blowhard movie ever made. Long and torturously earnest, draped in the sort of slickly magisterial imagery usually reserved for state-of-the-art beer commercials, it’s a piece of impassioned demagoguery — 2 1/2 hours of self-righteousness masquerading as art.
Ostensibly, Stone is telling the story of Ron Kovic (Tom Cruise), the working-class Catholic boy from Massapequa, N.Y., who went off to Vietnam with a head full of patriotic fantasies, came back paralyzed from the chest down, and then found redemption through protest, unleashing his bitterness on the war that had maimed him. Stone, though, isn’t interested in the details of Kovic’s life. Despite its epic scale, Born on the Fourth of July feels threadbare.
As Stone tells it, Kovic, born on July 4, 1946, is a gracious, bright-eyed macho achiever who embodies the dreams and doomed naivete of the classic ’50s American male. A star high-school athlete, he’s touchingly chivalrous around the girl (Kyra Sedgwick) he has a crush on.
In Vietnam, Kovic confronts the dark side of patriotic valor. In battle, he accidentally kills one of his own men (an event that will haunt him for years) and later is shot in the spinal cord. There’s no denying Stone’s talent: He mesmerizes us with the fear and brutal spectacle of Vietnam.
Tom Cruise tries hard, yet he’s fatally miscast: He simply doesn’t have the emotional range to play a character wallowing in grubby desperation. Like Michael J. Fox in Casualties of War, he suggests not simply innocence and panic but the slick insularity of a kid who’s been raised on video games. By the time Kovic returns to the States, a broken man, the actor’s aura of yuppie polish begins to feel weirdly incongruous.
Born on the Fourth of July is so inflated with purpose and ”good intentions” it doesn’t breathe. It’s a new-style mutant — a message movie on steroids. C+