"Controversial" seems to be the word of choice when describing Oliver Stone. Not a single article can be written about the prolific director that doesn't mention his reputation -- even his numbingly cautious handling of 'World Trade Center' was met with trepidation by by a press corp convinced that Stone would apply his wiles to his examination of September 11th.
All of which is not to say that his reputation isn't undeserved -- 'Platoon' skewered war support in a time when the military machine gaining momentum, 'JFK' caused renewed suspicion of the government's treatment of truth and history, while 'Natural Born Killers' might as well be a filmmaker's how-to-guide on the best way to anger as many people as possible in two hours. That being said, one of Stone's most controversial films is also his most intimate -- 'Born on the Fourth of July' not only criticized the US government's treatment of Vietnam vets, but it shined a harsh light on the public's nauseating reaction to their ultimate return to civilian life.
Based on the autobiography of the same name, 'Born on the Fourth of July' is the story of Ron Kovic (Tom Cruise), a soldier who was tragically paralyzed during his second tour in Vietnam. The early prt of the film would seem to have a penchant for Apple Pie and Americana as it follows Kovic before he leaves for the war, introduces his loving family. But when Kovic returns home in a wheelchair, things are quite different. His younger brother Tommy (Josh Evans) is an anti-war protestor, his parents (Raymond Barry and Caroline Kava) can't seem to cope with his depression and injury, and his one-time love (a young Kyra Sedgwick) has moved on with her life. After he conquers his own guilt and shame, he joins an organization called the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, where he quickly becomes an influential anti-war activist and works to raise awareness of how veterans are being treated.
The film earned dozens of nominations and took home more than ten substantial awards, including an Academy Award for Best Director. Critics have long hailed 'Born on the Fourth of July' as a masterpiece and a rousing character study of one man's rise from the proverbial ashes.
Even though I've owned several copies of 'Born on the Fourth of July' over the years, I found myself intrigued for entirely different reasons as I sat down to watch it again. As thought-provoking as the film was in 1989, it's perhaps even more resonant today. It's impossible to watch the film without seeing parallels to our nation's conflict in Iraq. Regardless of your political opinions, Stone's look at our country's shift in wartime support is chillingly relevant and reveals a familiar warning to modern audiences -- those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it. Kovic's story is so tragic because he risked his life for a country that ultimately tried to disown him. Stone, in turn, has made a film that comments on society's need for answers at the cost of its integrity -- with no clear villain to blame, people often turn on each other.
'Born on the Fourth of July' is tough to watch, to say the least -- but it's a rewarding film that will genuinely stir up your emotions. Cruise's performance is shockingly dark -- while his typical playboy charm helps his portrayal of the young Kovic, later in the film he is so authentically disheveled that he exudes a believable sense of desperation and defeat. The supporting cast is wonderful as well -- their silent stares and shifting expressions are a master class in discomfort and unease. Best of all, the script holds its own with heart-wrenching dialogue and naturalistic character development.
In short, 'Born on the Fourth of July' is an exceptional look at a misunderstood aspect of the Vietnam war. Instead of working to heal our wounded soldiers, we chose to disregard them. Oliver Stone's tale of Ron Kovic exists to help ensure we never take our frustration or our protests out on the wrong people.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Universal Studios Home Entertainment releases Oliver Stone's 'Born on the Fourth of July' to Blu-ray as a two-disc combo pack and a glossy slipcover commemorating the studio's 100th Anniversary. The first is a Region Free, BD50 disc while the second is DVD-9 copy of the movie, and both come inside a blue eco-lite keepcase on opposing panels. There is no main menu at startup.
The cinematography in 'Born on the Fourth of July' starts off with a deliberately stylized picture quality that looks back affectionately to the years prior to the war, showing lots of grain and with a mild soft focus. As things progress, the 1080p/VC-1 encode (2.35:1) comes into sharper view, displaying excellent definition and clarity in several shots. A few areas are blurrier than others, but on the whole, the image is attractive, with plenty of distinct detailing on clothes, hair and facial complexions, especially during close-ups. The color palette is full-bodied and accurate, making the video appear fresh and rejuvenated.
Contrast is comfortably bright and crisp, but several sequences reveal whites running a bit hotter than normal, creating some light posterization in the highlights. Black levels are in good order, for the most part, and visibility in the deep shadows is satisfying, yet crush can be somewhat of a nuisance in many scenes. Added to that, a couple shots show some minor ringing around the edges and very mild noise reduction is apparent in a few others. All things considered, it's not enough to completely ruin the high-def presentation or call it a disaster as it still looks very good on the whole.
Thanks in large part to the emotional and highly inspiring music of John Williams, this DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is terrific. Opening up the front soundstage and lightly bleeding into the background, the score engages and pulls listeners into the stirring drama while delivering a detailed mid-range that cleanly differentiates the many upper frequencies. Dialogue reproduction is equally superb, moving across the screen flawlessly and giving the design a nice spatial quality. The low-end also offers plenty of punchy mid-bass oomph during action sequences, providing a good deal of weight and presence to the track.
For a poignant bio-drama such as this, rear activity is a great surprise, expanding the soundfield with excellently immersive results. If it's not gunfire and explosions in the distance or the subtle ambient effects of birds chirping and leaves blowing with the wind, then it's the seamless panning and directionality of choppers flying overhead. But most of the time, it's the rousing score of John Williams which makes this lossless mix such a wonderful listen on Blu-ray.
The same set of special features from previous releases are ported over for this Blu-ray edition of Oliver Stone's bio-drama.
An emotional and poignant character study of a Vietnam Vet's struggle for the civil rights of veterans, 'Born on the Fourth of July' is an inspiring journey about confronting the permanent damages of war and the sacrifices soldiers are asked to pay. With an amazing performance by Tom Cruise as Ron Kovic, the film is a remarkable war drama from Oliver Stone, which he co-scripted with Kovic himself. The Blu-ray arrives with an excellent audio and video presentation and small but acceptable set of bonus material. Recommended.