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The Naked, Raw Anger of "Born on Fourth of July" at Ebertfest

American provocateur Oliver Stone appeared to be at war with himself at Saturday's 25th anniversary Ebertfest screening of "Born on the Fourth of July." Stone, a decorated Vietnam veteran, and the director of such films as "JFK" and "Natural Born Killers," was uncharacteristically soft-spoken when he talked about making "Born on the Fourth of July." He characterized the film, an adaptation of fellow vet Ron Kovic's memoir, as being full of "naked, raw anger, and it's mostly from Ron. I had made my peace with the war, I thought. It was Ron that activated my anger. I was not doing my own story, but there are some things similar to my own story."

Stone added: "The film is so angry, and it doesn't let up, but you have to understand: this guy was living in hell. I was sitting there rewatching the film and I thought 'God, this movie just doesn't fucking end. This is Hell! I just cannot be here anymore.' Young people, at the time, rejected the film, young women especially. Tom Cruise is castrated in the movie, and this is not easy to take."

Stone explained that Cruise took Kovic's role after star Al Pacino left an earlier incarnation of the project in 1979. Stone originally adapted Kovic's novel for "The Exorcist" director William Friedkin, but the film lost its funding two weeks before principal photography. Stone was heart-broken, especially after watching Pacino rehearse Kovic's part for two weeks. But Kovic was even more devastated. "He was so excited about Al Pacino," Stone remembered. "We had a scene where [Ron] was chasing me down Venice Beach, like the scene in the movie with Tommy [Cruise] and Willem Dafoe in Mexico. He wanted to kill me. He was enraged: 'Why couldn't we do this movie?' I said, 'Ron, I swear to you, if I ever make it in Hollywood, I will come back, and make this movie.' And he remembered that."

The collapse of this earlier incarnation of "Born on the Fourth of July" now seems inevitable. Stone remembered that Universal Studios wasn't enthusiastic about the film, especially after Hal Ashby's Vietnam War film, "Coming Home" (1978), banked a measly sum at the box office. There was just too much competition at the time, Seitz added. "Vietnam did not begin to be dealt with in cinema until the mid- to late-70s. And there was a wave of Vietnam movies in '78: 'Coming Home,' 'Apocalypse Now,' 'The Deer Hunter,' 'Go Tell the Spartans.'" So "Born on the Fourth of July" could only be made after Stone's Oscar-winning "Platoon" came out in 1986. This was almost ten years after producer Martin Stegman asked Stone to adapt Kovic's memoir in 1977.

Cruise's presence also greatly helped Stone make Kovic's angry vision come to life. Seitz pointed out that "Born on the Fourth of July" came out at the height of Cruise's popularity, just after "Top Gun," a film Stone praised as "an amazingly well-done movie." "Those of you who are young, you have to see it," Stone insisted. "If it came out today, it would still be popular."

Stone's recommendation was striking since "Top Gun" and "Born on the Fourth July" convey opposing messages. Seitz called "Top Gun" a "recruiting poster" while "Born on the Fourth of July" is a "critical look at the recruiting poster mentality." A disillusioned Stone said that recent events in Ukraine made him think "Top Gun 2" would be a big hit with contemporary viewers. "This patriotism remains to this day," Stone added. "There was a recent poll, by Gallup, believe it or not. But it said that 51% of 16-28 year-olds in this country think that Vietnam was a good war."

"Born on the Fourth of July" serves as a corrective to that mentality, a takedown of institutionalized "groupthink," in Stone's words. He joked that his film "did not become a big date movie," but good, personal civics lessons rarely are. The film is, as Stone said, Kovic's "confession," and as "close to a Capra film as I'm going to get." It's also Stone's story, no matter how much he wants to deny that personal connection. "All of Ron's childhood is like my childhood," Stone reflected. "So competitive, male-driven...even with his mother! 'You have to be #1, you can't be #2 in life.' Such a crazy philosophy; it cuts us off, and leads to perilous failure."

After the audience applauded that sentiment, Stone added that he thought the false patriotism he objects to in "Born on the Fourth of July" is prevalent even today. He accused President Obama of condoning the Vietnam War, and likened Obama's stance to Reagan-era "exceptionalism." In fact, Stone is so pessimistic, that he told one audience member that his movies will never be able to effect public policy. "No artist, no social creature can stand up to that power," Stone lamented. "Even Martin Luther King, as great a man as he was, could not stand up to that system, especially not in the last three years of his life. And no one has succeeded. No one has led us out of the wilderness in a long time. You hope you can throw a little pebble in the water, and that it has resonance."

Despite its creator's fatalism, "Born On the Fourth of July" has left ripples. Stone expressed great admiration for Kovic, praising him for affecting change in America's VA hospitals, and actively protesting both Gulf Wars. "He's one of the strongest men I've ever met in my life," Stone said. "I don't know how he's able to go through what he does every day." Like Kovic, Stone's film is inspiring, a brutal, funny story about individual perseverance against oppressive utilitarianism.

Simon Abrams

Simon Abrams is a native New Yorker and freelance film critic whose work has been featured in The New York TimesVanity FairThe Village Voice, and elsewhere.

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