The second film in Oliver Stone's Vietnam trilogy sees Ron Kovich (Cruise), a patriotic young American, reduced to life in a wheelchair by a sniper bullet. Initially wallowing in his physical and mental impotence - he drinks, he fights, he uses prostitutes - Ron recovers his energies and makes his way to the front of the Anti-War movement.
Marine Ron Kovic (Tom Cruise) lets go another round at the hidden Viet Cong snipers, an unshakeable belief in his own invincibility evident in his every action, fanatical pride in his corps and country driving him on over the brink. Suddenly, the entire beat of the action switches from observing this foolhardy act to a position inside Kovic as the fateful bullet rips through his spinal cord. Ever so slowly you arc up and over with him, collapsed onto the ground in a crumpled heap, the final thud bringing the blood up from the lungs and out through the mouth. It is a sickening, brutal, wholly unforgettable moment and just one of many that linger long after Born On The Fourth Of July has run its epic course.
The true story of Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic, originally told in his 1976 book Born On The Fourth Of July, could have easily lost its impact on the screen, reduced to the unfortunate plight of an unlucky whinger who bit off more than he could chew. Instead, it translates quite magnificently into a thoroughly moving tale of one mans extraordinary life, depicting the awful sense of impotence that comes with a young body trapped in a wheelchair while all the time supplying the fascinating backdrop of three of the most turbulent decades in American history.
And then there is Tom Cruise. Impressive enough in the fairly traditional role of the all-American boy preparing himself for glory, he is literally unrecognisable as the post-war paraplegic, displaying a depth and range never previously even hinted at in a remarkable performance that immediately lifts him out of his previous cheesecake category and places him smack at the front of a whole generation of American actors. The scene in which he rips out his catheter to rage against a wholly redundant penis, while his mother looks on suitably aghast, is at once deeply affecting and barely watchable, while the tears streaming down his face as he finally finds some sort of desperate comfort in a Mexican brothel have already been shared by audiences throughout America. Willem Dafoe supplies strong support, but this is Cruises movie, wheeling around like a madman, looking like a thinner David Crosby and barking at the world for reducing him to this sorry state. The closest parallel would be Daniel Day Lewis in My Left Foot, a fair indication of the quality of work on display here.
The gradual politicisation of this former gung-ho patriot is less skilfully handled by Stone, with no real explanation of why exactly Cruise switches tack so dramatically. The film is overlong and overwrought and there is also a distinct sense of having travelled some of these paths before, via The Deer Hunter (early hometown scenes), Coming Home (vet in a wheelchair) and, of course, this directors own Platoon. And yet in a film this big, none of these flaws seem to add up to a hill of beans. Few recent movies have covered so much ground with such aplomb, fewer still have packed such a punch to the heart.
Some will find it overly long, but with such a pivotal performance by Cruise and a veritable platoon of Hollywood elite supporting, who can begrudge a bit more screen time?