Sunday, April 27, 2014

Ebert Thoughts ‘14—Born on the Fourth of July (1989) ***

R, 145 min.
Director: Oliver Stone
Writers: Ron Kovic (also memoir), Oliver Stone
Starring: Tom Cruise, Raymond J. Barry, Caroline Kava, Josh Evans, Samantha Larkin, Tom Berenger, Frank Whaley, Jerry Levine, Stephen Baldwin, Kyra Sedgwick, Karen Newman, Willem Dafoe, Tom Sizemore, Michael Wincott, Ed Lauter, Dale Dye, Oliver Stone, Bryan Larkin, John Getz, Willie Minor, Rocky Carroll, Billie Neal, Richard Poe, Bob Gunton, Lili Taylor

It’s interesting that “Do the Right Thing” and “Born on the Fourth of July” were invited to Ebertfest the same year. They were each released the same year. Both had Oscar implications. ’89 was one of the first years that I made a point to see the Oscar nominees. I was disappointed with both “Do the Right Thing” and “Born on the Fourth of July” at that time. I later watch them each again and totally changed my opinion of “Do the Right Thing”. I liked “Born on the Fourth of July” better upon a second screening as well, but I still never thought it was Oscar-level, especially considering Oliver Stone’s other Oscar-nominated films.

What works about “Born on the Fourth of July” are two aspects. One is the very intimate nature of the story. It feels like an autobiography. Since Ron Kovic co-wrote the screenplay with Stone, based on his own memoir, this makes sense. It also helps that Stone’s own Vietnam experience, upon which he based his Oscar-winning film “Platoon”, began so similarly to Kovic’s. As a privileged, college-educated white man who volunteered, he very much understood where Kovic was coming from in his eagerness to serve his country in Vietnam.

Stone also tries to create a classic Hollywood epic feel to the film in the way he photographs and scores it. Robert Richardson’s cinematography and John Williams’ score allow Kovic’s all-American beginnings to contrast against the betrayal by his country in his service and his treatment as a casualty of that ill-conceived war. It also highlights the classic story of triumph that Kovic is eventually able to turn his story toward.

Still, the film is a little claustrophobic. If you look at the cast list, the names go on and on, many of who were very much a part of Stone’s revolving company of players at the time. I think some of the scenes in this film acted as auditions for many of the roles in Stone’s next film “The Doors”. However, it is only Kovic that we are given any real sense about. None of the other characters are ever really fleshed out. Even as an autobiography, there should be people in Kovic’s life that are more than just supporting players. Surely he has some deep relationships. The film does not give the impression that anyone was ever really close to Kovic, nor did he seem to desire more than passing relationships. If this was the case, the film never really deals with this aspect of his character.

Despite these final two “merely good” films in my opinion, this year’s Ebertfest was one for the books. I wasn’t able to see two of this year’s films, the silent feature “He Who Gets Slapped” and the music-themed documentary “Bayou Maharajah”. I highly anticipate seeing them when I can get access to them. I think Roger would be proud of this year’s selection of films, and it seems that Ebertfest will remain a lasting legacy of the great film critic.

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