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Preceded by Platoon and followed by Heaven and Earth, Born on the Fourth of July is the second installment of Oliver Stone’s ‘Vietnam War Trilogy’. Focusing on the aftermath of war combat, the casting of Tom Cruise as Ron Kovic pays off handsomely in drawing the audience into a harrowing narrative. The casting of Cruise is both a cast with type and cast against type. The film is spilt in two halves by this. To highlight the casting choice, Stone uses a particular scene that has drastic consequences for Kovic, but also the narrative. Like all well-made biographies, the focus in on the body. That scene is the gunshot that severs Ron Kovic’s spinal cord paralysing him from the chest down.
The first part of the movie shows Cruise as cast with type. Casting with type is when a Director selects an actor that has become identifiable with certain roles. In this case Tom Cruise as the All-American boy. Pauline Kael, among others, has stated that Cruise is the template of the all-American boy; see also Top Gun and Risky Business.
The beginning sees the young Ron Kovic’s life focused on expressing his physicality. Kovic run’s around the woods with his friends playing war games. When he gets his first kiss he immediately needs to show Donna how many push-ups he can do. In a little league baseball game he hits a home-run to win the game and is part of the high-school wrestling team.
After a visit to his high-school by the Marines, Kovic decides to test himself in one of the most physical arena’s possible; Marines recruit training at Parris Island. Kovic passes this and heads to Vietnam where during his second tour is part of a friendly-fire incident killing a fellow marine. This is followed by the pivotal scene when Kovic is shot through the chest severing his spinal cord paralysing him from the chest down.
This is where the cast against type of Cruise begins. Casting against type is when the Director chooses an actor that is not usually considered for a specific role to create some kind of dramatic, comedic or suspenseful (to name a few) effect within the narrative. A good example of casting against type is Adam Sandler as Barry Egan in Punch Drunk Love.
In this case, the casting of Cruise creates a dramatic effect that pays off big-time. It is no more All-American boy and Kovic’s life descends into a surrealist nightmare. Kovic is unable to live like he used to. It has a devastating effect on all aspects of his life. While recovering from his wounds at the Bronx Veteran’s Hospital, he tries to prove he can walk; however, he falls and breaks his leg resulting in it almost being amputated.
Kovic’s relationships with friends and family deteriorate. He fights with one of his brothers who is anti-war and argues with his mother. Kovic is unable to attend an anti-war rally with Donna (played by Kyra Sedgwick), his childhood sweetheart because he is unable to navigate the stairs. Eventually Kovic descends into alcoholism and battles his demons in Mexico where he struggles to come to terms with his impotence. Ron’s body is shot.
Cruise’s acting really starts to come to the fore in the second part of the narrative. The research Cruise undertook is something all aspiring actors can learn from. Cruise went to Veterans hospitals and spoke to paraplegics, to name a few of the things Cruise studied in order to get ready for the role. The real Ron Kovic assisted Cruise through all of this. Such was Cruise’s performance, on the last day of principal shooting Cruise received the Bronze Star medal awarded to Kovic for his efforts in the Vietnam War from Kovic himself.
To overcome his lack of physicality in this stage of his life, Kovic has to re-discover himself. He no longer is able to express himself through acting in a physical way. Once he comes aware of his intelligence Kovic writes an autobiography while also fighting in anti-war movements and protesting at Republican and Democratic conventions against American involvement in the Vietnam War. Kovic gains respect from politicians, social commentators, the media and the wider public, but more importantly Kovic gains respect for himself.
Stone’s casting of Cruise is a very good choice, showing that casting can make or break a film project. Rumours are out there that Charlie Sheen was considered for the role of Kovic. Stone wanted to communicate with the American community about the harsh and oppressive conditions Vietnam Veterans lived under. So many families were broken through the Vietnam War. By using an actor that was highly revered at the time, in the first part, Stone is able to draw the audience into the narrative by having them relate to the character. In the second part, Stone hits the audience with a sledgehammer by highlighting the violent conditions lived by Vietnam Vets. Cruise was deserving of his Academy Award nomination, however, lost to Daniel Day-Lewis for his portrayal of Christy Brown in My Left Foot. Cruise, however, did win the Golden Globe for his performance. Stone won several awards, including Oscar’s for his efforts.
Director: Oliver Stone
Writers: Oliver Stone, Ron Kovic
Stars: Tom Cruise, Kyra Sedgwick, Willem Defoe, Frank Whaley, Raymond J. Barry