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Born on the Fourth of July

Oliver Stone (PLATOON) returns to the Vietnam War era but here the focus is primarily on the homefront and the aftershocks of war. Ambitious matinee idol Tom Cruise stars in a showy change-of-pace characterization as Ron Kovic in the autobiographical story of a gung ho young man who went proudly off to Vietnam, came back home in a wheelchair, and, after a traumatic interval, became a high profile antiwar activist. The film begins with a depiction of Kovic's youth in Massapequa, New York, where he is raised to be a deeply patriotic, God-fearing, macho all-American athelete. As such, he eagerly enlists in the Marines and ships off to Vietnam, convinced of the justness of the American cause. He becomes increasingly confused and disoriented after he accidentally kills one of his own men in a firefight. He later receives a bullet wound that leaves him paralyzed from the waist down. Back in the home of his family which no longer understands him, he degenerates into a drunken, self-pitying dropout. After a dissolute sequence in Mexico, he somehow gets a grip on himself, confronts his changed feelings about his life and his country, and becomes an antiwar activist, thereby regaining his self-respect. Stone's film is undeniably emotionally powerful but problematic because it lingers on the pathos of Kovic's condition while skirting the less visually dramatic aspects of the character. Kovic clearly undergoes a political conversion but it is never dealt with directly--he changes during a fadeout. The effect is as unintentionally jarring as if a reel of the film were missing. The critique of masculinity is far more thoughtful and compelling than the vague ruminations about war. Nonetheless Cruise's impassioned performance as Kovic is an impressive accomplishment.