Born On The Fourth Of July

Born On The Fourth Of July (1989)
Universal Home Video
Cast: Tom Cruise
Extras: Commentary Track, Production Notes, Cast & Crew Bios

As the second of three installments in director Oliver Stone’s Vietnam trilogy (the other two films being "Platoon" and "Heaven & Earth"), "Born on the Fourth of July" focuses more on the aftermath of this horrible conflict and the cost to those Americans who fought there. This is the third DVD release of this particular title from Universal and, after taking a look at it, I have to wonder why they really bothered. More on that later.

Raised in a patriotic, blue-collar family, Ron Kovic decides to enlist in the Marine Corps in the late 1960s and is shipped off to Vietnam where his pre-conceived notions of honor on the battlefield are quickly dashed by the horrors of a modern, brutal war.

After suffering a paralyzing wound, Kovic returns home a paraplegic to a nation at war with itself. At first he lashes out against what he sees as a betrayal by the American people but eventually he comes to understand that the war is wrong and becomes an anti-war activist himself.

While based on the true life story of Ron Kovic, fans of Oliver Stone know that he likes to play fast and loose with the hard facts in order to bludgeon the audience with the point he is trying to get across. While some may decry this style and point to the gross inaccuracies in films such as "JFK" and "Nixon," Stone himself is quite clear that he is not trying to make a film that stands as a historical document, but is instead trying to prod the audience to stop and think about their country and government. The result is usually a very unsettling film that viewers and critics will either love or hate.

"Born on the Fourth of July" is in the same vein as these other films in that Stone pulls no punches in telling Kovic’s story. The horror and violence of war are brutally portrayed on screen while the confusion and conflict on the home front is quite clear as well.

At its heart the story is one of redemption and the most effective way of portraying Ron Kovic’s transformation is through these shocking images and somewhat massaged historical details.

In portraying Ron Kovic, Tom Cruise has what may be his finest dramatic role to date. Nominated for the Best Actor Academy Award, Cruise is actually able to lose himself in this part and fully become the character. It’s a rare film in which Mr. Cruise takes a backseat to the person he is portraying and I found his acting here to be both moving and highly personal in nature.

While the film itself is quite powerful, the DVD itself just doesn’t measure up. As mentioned before, this is the third release of this movie on disc and Universal seems content to just let it slide. The addition of a director’s commentary on this latest edition is most welcome but the movie is what really matters and it simply deserves better treatment.

The video is presented in a non-<$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen> format preserving the original 2.35:1 aspect ratio of the film. As was the case with another recent Universal re-release ("Somewhere in Time"), the video has been carried over from the previous edition with all the same faults as that earlier transfer. On the plus side, Oliver Stone’s over-saturated use of colors is quite capably handled and colors are accurate with no bleeding and only a few dull scenes. Unfortunately, it’s all downhill from here. The transfer employs far too much edge-enhancement with the result that many fine details shimmer to the point of distraction while many other scenes take on a very artificial look. Coupled with this is a fair amount of film grain that is evident throughout and just adds to the distraction level. The transfer is by no means unwatchable and certainly doesn’t rank up there with the worst, but Universal had the opportunity to get things right on three separate occasions and has dropped the ball each and every time. Bad studio, bad.

The audio is presented in a very full-sounding <$DD,Dolby Digital> <$5.1,5.1 mix>. The front soundstage is nice and broad, offering frequent panning effects and a beautiful, encompassing score by John Williams. Dialogue is always clear and takes full advantage of the front speakers but can occasionally sound a bit unnatural. Dynamic range is fairly good although deep bass is not present except in the battle scenes. Surrounds are used chiefly during the wartime passages and to enhance the musical score but when they do kick in they’re quite effective at providing that "you are there" type of feel. While the soundtrack is quite enjoyable, it does sound more like a good <$DS,Dolby Surround> mix than a top-of-the-line 5.1 remastering. This isn’t a necessarily a bad thing and, on the whole, I thought the audio was very solid.

The real reason that Universal decided to release "Born on the Fourth of July" yet again was to take advantage of a new <$commentary,commentary track> by director Oliver Stone who, incidentally, won the Best Director Academy Award for this film. As is the case with his previous commentaries for other movies, Stone is talkative throughout and is not shy about discussing his politics and the controversy surrounding his films. He is obviously quite proud of this movie and becomes emotional when discussing some of the more dramatic scenes as they unfold. The only other extras on the DVD are a few production notes and some outdated cast and crew biographies and film lists. While the <$commentary,commentary track> is quite enjoyable, the lack of any other bonus features make the use of the term "special edition" for this DVD somewhat questionable.

Please don’t get the impression from this review that I absolutely hate this disc. "Born on the Fourth of July" is in and of itself a very gripping and powerful drama and fans of the film, or the director, who don’t already have one of the previous releases will probably want to pick this one up. What I must call into question is Universal’s seeming lack of care for this title as evidenced by a slip-shod, rehashed video master and the lack of any insightful extras to help flesh out Oliver Stone’s very nice commentary. Who knows, maybe they’ll get it right the fourth time around but I certainly won’t be holding my breath waiting. In the meantime, I’ll enjoy watching this fine film on DVD and dream of what might have been.