March 19, 2014
During his second tour, his unit inadvertently kills several innocent Vietnamese peasants. He accidentally shoots and kills a fellow serviceman during a hasty retreat from enemy fire. Three months later, Kovic (Tom Cruise) is shot in the spine in combat, and is paralyzed from the chest down. He spends more that a year in stateside veteran hospitals, where he nearly has a leg amputated, then returns to the small town home of his conservative parents.
There, his fate is contrasted with Steve (Jerry Levine) a successful businessman from his same high school class who knew better than to volunteer for Vietnam. Kovic is feted as a hero at a July 4 parade but breaks down during his public speech, unable to reconcile his losses with the patriotic sentiment the occasion requires. He reconnects with former girlfriend Donna (Kyra Sedgwick), now an antiwar demonstrator.
Kovic has an adequate monthly pension from the government, but wallows in drink and self-pity, alienating his family, who are forced to evict him. Kovic travels to Mexico, where he hangs out with fellow paralyzed vets, especially argumentative Willem Dafoe. He hits bottom, boozing and soliciting prostitutes.
Unlike Dafoe, Kovic finally sees the light, and returns home. He meets with the family of the soldier he accidentally killed, including his widow (Lili Taylor). He becomes an antiwar activist, disrupting the nomination acceptance speech of President Nixon at the 1972 Republican convention, where he is assaulted and rescued. Four years later, Kovic receives the honor of delivering a speech at the 1976 Democratic convention. But for some odd reason we don't get to see him deliver it.
How others will see it. This film was the big chance for handsome and passionate Tom Cruise, a box office bonanza for decades following Risky Business, to earn something that money cannot buy: an Oscar for Best Actor. Alas, he lost out to Daniel Day-Lewis, who was also playing a real-life handicapped celebrity. Cruise never won an Oscar, not even an honorary one, but at least got to applaud while Oliver Stone carried home the Best Director trophy for the present film.
The movie made a mint at the box office, grossing multiples of its surprisingly small budget. At imdb.com, the user count is a respectable but underwhelming 60K, and the user ratings are somewhat lower than expected at 7.2 out of 10. Males under 18, who are most likely to sympathize with panic-stricken servicemen of a similar age, grade it highest at 7.9. The grade steadily declines thereafter, to 6.9 among men over 45. Presumably, older audiences are more conservative and less likely to agree with Stone's antiwar and even anti-patriotic sentiments.
How I felt about it. The movie does have problems. It covers too much ground, and sometimes dwells on the wrong things, such as Kovic's failure to win a state wrestling title, and his dramatic run in the rain to crash his senior prom. The massacre of a Vietnam village was already covered in either Apocalypse Now or Full Metal Jacket. Or was it Platoon? They all run together sometimes.
It has to be said, though, that Oliver Stone and Tom Cruise are willing to go all the way with the material, even if it traumatizes the audience, such as Kovic's drunken verbal confrontation with his own mother.
By the way, Ron Kovic really was born on the fourth of July. As was my brother-in-law. But not Tom Cruise, who came close though, born on July 3.