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Stone's new epic a gripping portrayal of horrors of war

BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY

Directed by Oliver Stone.

Starring Tom Cruise, Kyra

Sedgwick, Frank Whaley and

Willem Dafoe.

Now playing at the Loews Paris.

[ufauthor]

By ANNABELLE BOYD

RON KOVIC WAS BORN on the fourth of July in 1946. His youth was dominated by John Wayne movies, make-believe games of war in the back woods of his neighborhood, and the mandates of the Catholic Church. When a Marine recruiter came to speak at his high school, Kovic readily identified with the Marine mentality -- the quest to be the best and the affirmation of manhood through war. Shortly after graduation he enlisted, leaving his lower middle-class family for the front lines of Vietnam.

In 1967, on his second tour of duty in Vietnam, a bullet tore through his spinal column, leaving him paralyzed from the chest down and emotionally as well as physically shattered.

Upon his release from a Veterans Administration hospital, Kovic faced a family embarrassed by his disability and an America divided by protesters who refused to separate the war from the warrior. The turmoil of "coming home" led to the slow destruction of everything in which Kovic believed: family, God, and country.

However, disillusionment triggered a process of awakening in Kovic. It was an awakening laced with alcoholic excess, political protests, and frantic writing, including his National Book Award-nominated autobiography. It was an awakening which forced Kovic to overturn the values that had shaped his life and to adjust dramatically the ways he measured his belief in himself.

Born on the Fourth of July is Oliver Stone's bitter, searing rendition of the life of Ron Kovic. It is also a brilliant postscript to his Oscar-winning Platoon. Centering on two threads of Kovic's Vietnam experience -- his paralysis and subsequent impotence, and his accidental killing of one of his own troops -- Stone weaves an impassioned film which assaults the American military tradition, and lays to waste the value system that forces men to wage war in search of their manhood and their identity.

Much of the film's visceral power comes from Tom Cruise, who in a stunning portrayal of Kovic runs the emotional gamut from enthusiastic young soldier to crippled head of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Cruise's physical transformation is astounding; his thinning hair, wasted body, and rueful grin sharpen the terror of Kovic's paralysis and the agony of his spiritual recovery.

Cruise's Kovic is both particular and emblematic. His drunken rows at his mother and his condition, his loss of faith in God, and his wearying search for renewed belief in himself are inherent to him but symbolically representative of the struggle of a generation. When he finally confronts the parents of the soldier he murdered, he destroys a family's faith that the loss of their son was for a worthy cause. He epitomizes the recognition of millions of Americans that the American military tradition is not above reproach, but is something that can be manipulated by a corrupt government and an ambitious military bureaucracy.

Written jointly by Oliver Stone and Ron Kovic, the screenplay for Born on the Fourth of July mercilessly evokes the casual, careless horrors of war. Stone uses only two battle scenes in Born, but they represent some of the best battle footage ever put on the big screen. As in Platoon, the fighting is portrayed as quick, confusing and Darwinian. However, in Born, Stone adds an extra dimension through his manipulation of sound. War cries, baby screams, helicopter whirls, and fear-quickened breathing generate a powerful soundtrack that is echoed throughout the film in memories and dreams.

Like Oliver Stone's other films, Born on the Fourth of July is fiercely antagonistic. Stone is keenly aware of the influence movies have on a society's perception of war. In his mission to quell the Hollywood war-glorification myth, Stone assaults his viewer with the human hell of the Bronx VA hospital -- a morass of amputees, excrement, rats, overflowing urine bags, screams, and moans. When Kovic flees his family for a Mexican resort where the whorehouses cater to paraplegic vets, Stone unflinchingly depicts a self-annihilation replete with alcoholism, violence, and sexual humiliation.

Born on the Fourth of July possesses an emotional grip of iron. Stone seems haunted by Kovic's past and by what Vietnam did to his beliefs and to his faith in his country. He tells Kovic's story with anger, insight, and a bullying determination to make the American nation come to grips with what it did to Kovic and thousands like him. Born is a gruesome movie, but it offers courage and inspiration and the hope that the hard-learned lessons of Vietnam can help a new generation to a greater understanding of the nature of democracy and heroism and war.

Born on the Fourth of July is Stone's poignant plea to America to re-define its out-dated, dangerously intoxicating notions of manhood.