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HD DVD Review: Born on the Fourth of July

Born on the Fourth of July (Universal) [HD DVD]
Featuring: Tom Cruise, Willem Dafoe, Frank Whaley, Kyra Sedgwick, Caroline Kava, Raymond J. Barry and Jerry Levine

Oliver Stone’s career immediately after the intense Salvador and the Oscar® winning Platoon proved he was capable of making serious “issue” pictures that were not only critically well received but also completely entertaining. With a distinctive directorial style that first became evident in Born on the Fourth of July Stone set out to get inside the heads of characters and into the immediacy of the moment by using alternative lighting effects, varied film and video stocks as well as a whiplash camera and editing style that is still used to irritating effect to this day. Except, when Stone utilizes it, it’s a style that seems less irritating and more involving, pulling you into the narrative as if you’re there to experience every emotional undercurrent. Sometimes he’s heavy-handed (and somewhat ham-fisted) with his message or the point he’s trying to make (Kilmer’s Jim Morrison with the face of an Adonis statue springs immediately to mind), but often times his style involves the viewer as a kind of… well, a kind of co-conspirator. In Born on the Fourth of July Stone uses his then nascent directorial gifts to great advantage to tell the emotionally moving story of Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic and the struggles he experienced as a young man, fresh out of high school and filled with the vim and vigor of youth, believing every patriotic war movie and getting a taste of first love. He joins the Marines out of national pride and a skewed sense of what valor truly is, and finds himself knee-deep in country… during his second tour his military career is marred by an incident that also causes him to the ability to walk. Kovic’s story soon becomes one of despair and misery, a long lost weekend where confusion about the deep cultural and generational rifts of the 60’s were only just coming to the fore of the American zeitgeist. Kovic struggles with his own politics and frustration for his dormant and forever ruined sexuality… eventually he turns a corner, comes to terms with his past transgressions whether by accident or design and accepts responsibility for his own role in the war and the anti-war movement he has embraced.

It’s a beautifully haunting film, a continuation of many of the themes Stone explored in the more combat oriented Platoon, and it reaches levels of near-operatic intensity at times as Kovic struggles to understand his family after years away from them and how they must struggle to understand him and how the war ultimately affected them all. Stone experiments here, for the first time, with unconventional storytelling methods and creating dramatic shifts in mood and segues between scenes using colored lighting and camera effects. He hadn’t yet gone overboard here, as he would later with Natural Born Killers, but the wonderful look of the film, it’s rich tones and fantastic use of widescreen make this a gorgeous visual effort as well as a tremendous dramatic accomplishment. The acting is, Hail Xenu, nothing short of fantstic… Tom Cruise is truly at his best here and it’s probably still his single finest dramatic role in many ways. The drunken verbal confrontation with his harridan mother is still an amazing moment of the kind of audacity that rings true in any argument between loved ones seemingly incapable of understanding each other’s fears and troubles while his latter verbal snit with Willem Dafoe’s crazed-vet Charlie. Nary a performance comes across as unbelievable… it’s a testament to Stone’s absolute skill and utter control over his actors (at least in his early works up until the brilliant Nixon) and probably why Cruise elicits much sympathy in this role even when being a perfect sonofabitch to those around him. This is a great war film, not just a great Vietnam War film, and it’s certainly on par with William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives. It has withstood the test of time, and is quite simply a sad, tragic and finally uplifting classic that’s easily one of Stone’s many masterpieces of cinema.

The transfer is just as impressive in 1080 progressive resolution (widescreen 2.35) with every detail standing out and deep color saturation throughout with absolutely no bleed. The audio is a bit of a letdown in a DD Plus 5.1 English language track (French is offered in DD 2.0, subtitles are in English and French). If it weren’t for the absolute quality of the film itself, I wouldn’t bother recommending the HD DVD release. It’s not remastered, and aside from the sharpness and clarity of 1080 scan lines, it’s a letdown on the audio side of the equation and offers nothing in terms of features other than an audio commentary with Oliver Stone and a short video segment called NBC News Archives: Back Story – Born On The Fourth Of July.

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