A few years back when I first came to Cambodia I was chilling at Steve's Steakhouse, seated at the bar, munching on one of his homemade burgers made from his own grain-fed cows that he keeps in a pasture outside of town. Sports was on the TV. Jim Croce was on the stereo. Life was good.
"I used to listen to Croce back in Philly in the seventies," the man next to me at the bar said. He was middle-aged, stocky, solid. American, no doubt.
"Were you working in Philadelphia?" I asked.
"No," he said. "I was in the veterans hospital they had there for a year."
And so began an interesting conversation, the kind of conversation and the kind of person you can only meet when you are in a place like Cambodia. I remember because yesterday I watched again Oliver Stone's Born On The Fourth Of July, and this particular gentleman had had both of his legs blown off in Vietnam, knew both Oliver Stone and Ron Kovic, the subject of the biographical film, and now worked all over the world for the Vietnam Veterans Association of America, helping people with no limbs get limbs. He lived in Colombia, strangely enough. There was plenty to do here; thousands upon thousands of people still get limbs blown off every day, scrounging for scrap metal in the fields while ending up being blown up by the remnants of the literally millions of land mines that still litter this country.
Is there a better movie than Born On The Fourth of July? I know there is, somewhere, but boy is that a film. It is not just a mind-blowingly heart-wrenching exploration of what the Vietnam war does to one's psyche, a vivid and sympathetic portrait of a boy raised in the small-town, mom and apple pie ethos of America who gradually, gradually realizes that he has been sold a bill of goods that he paid a terrible, terrible price for. It is all of this, yes, but it is also, quite frankly, the most emotional film I've ever seen. Each scene operates on a number of different levels, and as the movie progresses so much anger and hope and fear and confusion escalates and accumulates. It is a film about growing up and leaving home and realizing that the world is a harsh and fucked-up place. It features the best performance that Tom Cruise will ever give. It is designed to make you feel, and how many movies really, really make us feel, well, anything?
For Stone's detractors, it is chock-full of things to criticize: overblown, overdramatic, didactic. Yes, yes, yes. Give me more. Give me it all in equal measure, than pour me a bit more for the ride home. Stone makes films that are pulsing with life. In Cambodia I sat beside a guy who had both legs blown off in the war, who was a dumb kid from West Virginia who signed up for 'Nam because his government told him to, and his lucky reward was a year spent in a veterans hospital and a lifetime's worth of rage that eventually found an altruistic channel helping other people in foreign countries who had also been wounded by war's lack of mercy. Born On The Fourth Of July makes me feel for that man at the bar; it makes me understand, as much as is possible for a schmuck like me, what he went through. It is unapologetic, that film is, and because of that, the human experience is widened, and so am I.
It also contains what are quite possibly two of the greatest scenes ever put on film: 1) Ron Kovic, played by Cruise, returns to his childhood home after two tours in Nam and one year in a veterans hospital in the Bronx. He and his father are in Ron's old bedroom, trapped in time, the room and them. The father is explaining how he's fixed up the bathroom. Ron is looking at a framed photo of himself as a high-school wrestler. The father sees him looking at the photo. The father embraces Ron, tightly, breaks down, then stands up and starts to walk out of the room, in tears, talking about more home renovation as Ron puts the photo down, face-down. That scene says it all, about everything. The pain of time lost. The pain of Ron's injury. The past that is gone. The love between the father and son. It's all there, and it lasts less than a minute. I've seen that scene a dozen times, and it gets me every time. 2) Near the end of the film, Ron and Willem Dafoe are stuck on a highway somewhere in Mexico, thrown out of a taxi for arguing with the driver. Both Vietnam vets, both in wheelchairs, the two begin to argue about who did worse in Vietnam, who did the most harm, who killed the most babies. They yell and spit and scream and grapple with each other, before toppling down the side of a hill, bouncing out of their wheelchairs, lying helpless under the hot Mexican sun. The anger, the confusion, the sheer symbolic potency of this scene is something close to perfection.
Those who accuse Stone of being obvious and lacking subtlety are missing the point. Life is not subtle, and life is far too obvious. Pain is real and rage is real and so are the deeper, stronger, more humane emotions. Stone's films rejoice in the ferocity of such human expressions. They understand that in a world where it is possible for people to have their legs blown off in foreign lands, there is sometimes no need for subtlety.