Arsenic and Apple Pie

Oliver Stone Pt. 1: Patriotism and propaganda in Born on the Fourth of July
by Kevin B. Lee and Matt Zoller Seitz  posted October 14, 2008
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This is the first of four video essays on Oliver Stone. Additional pieces will be posted on October 15, 16, and 17.

Oliver Stone's George W. Bush biopic W., opening October 17, is his latest foray in a genre that has yielded some of his most memorable work: the political biography. The four Stone films examined in this series of video essays—Born on the Fourth of July, JFK, Nixon, and Alexander—dramatize conflicted relationships between highly driven individuals, their heroic ideals, and their service to the nation-state. They amount to cinematic battlefields where sophisticated ideas and recreated events are intensified (or at times, blown away) by expressive camerawork and editing schemes. To bring histrionics into history may seem a dubious project, but in Stone's hands, it brings an urgency and vitality to his subjects that few filmmakers can match.

Stone built his reputation as a screenwriter of overheated melodramas with a political bite, including 1978's Turkish prison picture Midnight Express (which won Stone a Best Original Screenplay Oscar) and Brian De Palma's 1983 remake of Scarface, which transformed the original's Italian hero into a transplanted Cuban criminal whose voracious appetite was a sick parody of the archetypal immigrant success story. Stone's most notable early films as a director—Salvador (1986), Platoon (1986, loosely based on his own experience as a Marine in Vietnam), Wall Street (1987), and Talk Radio (1988)—were classically constructed, broad-brushstroke entertainments with a muckraking sensibility.

But with the antiwar polemic Born on the Fourth of July (1989), Stone began to take stylistic risks that separated him from previous masters of the "message" picture. His restless experimentation with film stock, disruptive editing, interpolated documentary material, and cultural iconography defined what now seems the most urgent and fruitful period of his career, and marked Stone as one of the most distinctive and commanding directorial voices in American cinema: a popular artist whose work had to be reckoned with, even if one disagreed with his politics and loathed his worldview.

These films all grapple, to some extent, with the idea of an "official" narrative. Stone's filmmaking defines this as a story presented by authorities in order to perpetuate ideology, strengthen received wisdom, reinforce a nation's identity, and keep society's economic, political, and military engines chugging along. Stone reiterates the "official" narrative in order to question it, annihilate it, or simply call the viewer's attention to the manner in which such narratives are built, and to the mentality and agenda of the parties that concoct them, unleash them on the world, and defend them against attacks by the likes of Oliver Stone.


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Oliver Stone's Platoon was about one Marine's experience in Vietnam. With Born on the Fourth of July, Stone widens his vision to show the political, religious, and social machinery that manufactures soldiers, then chews them up and spits them out. Stone's adaptation of antiwar activist Ron Kovic's memoir is an epic of disillusionment—about a man raised on a diet of militaristic propaganda who realized, too late, that it was poison. Stone's cinematographer Robert Richardson shoots the opening section in golden tones reminiscent of Life magazine covers and Norman Rockwell paintings, but it's an apple pie laced with arsenic. Born is filled with rituals and gatherings meant to reproduce ideology—particularly the notion that America is a selfless warrior nation that rewards winners who never quit, that our leaders and institutions have the individual's best interest at heart, and that one need not question authority because father, in all of his forms, knows best. Kovic's blind faith in authority, and his obsession with belonging, are fortified by denial and repression—perfect traits for a soldier who is expected to do as he's told and never ask why.

In Vietnam, this good soldier pays a terrible price. He lets himself be bullied into accepting faulty battlefield intelligence, participates in a botched raid on a nonexistent enemy stronghold that kills civilians, then accepts his superiors' cover story. The result is a chain of moral compromises and tragic mishaps—including Kovic's accidental shooting of a fellow soldier, an act that he denies and represses under orders from higher up. His war experience exposes the lies on which his identity and his country's self-image are based. In a skirmish with the enemy, Kovic is shot in the foot, falls down, then summons his inner John Wayne and stands to fight again, sustaining wounds that confine him to a wheelchair and render him impotent. At home, Kovic is treated as a shameful afterthought by the military, a heroic abstraction by his town, and a symbol of failure by Vietnam's opponents and supporters alike.

The rest of the movie is a sociological detective story, with Kovic trying to answer the question, "Why did I go to Vietnam, and, once I got there, what possessed me to stand up when I should have stayed down?" Ironically, these questions are answered in the opening parade when the young hero regards a line of wounded World War II vets, one of whom is played by the real Kovic. The reality of war is inscribed on the faces of the vets, who are treated as human props every July 4th, then forgotten anew until the following Memorial Day. Kovic, taught from birth to equate war with patriotism and manhood, answers the old vet's thousand-yard stare with a blank look. Then the shot pans right so that Kovic's face is replaced by his flag. "The first time I was hit, I was shot in the foot," Kovic later reflects while sitting in his parents' backyard with a fellow vet. "Who gives a fuck now whether I was a hero or not? I was paralyzed, castrated that day. Why?"

Kovic answers that question by facing facts he'd previously denied, voicing thoughts he'd once repressed, and speaking truth to power. The young soldier's rebellion starts out small-scaled and personal, as evidenced by a mortifyingly powerful scene in which Kovic castigates his mother for inundating him with religious and political propaganda, then pulls out his catheter and demands that she not only acknowledge his impotence, but the sexuality that his upbringing repressed.

With each subsequent scene, Kovic's rebellion becomes increasingly daring, forceful and public. He visits the family of the soldier he accidentally shot, demolishing the official narrative of the young man's death and dragging his survivors into Kovic's emotional turmoil. And in the movie's dramatic climax, Kovic leads a phalanx of Vietnam veterans against the war (many of them paraplegic) into the 1972 Republican convention; after security dumps Kovic and his crew out onto the pavement, the hero reconnects, more productively this time, with his inner John Wayne and inspires his buddies to regroup and "take back the hall." The following sequence—perhaps the film's only straightforwardly rousing action setpiece—is a kinetic analog for Stone's directorial strategy. Throughout Born on the Fourth of July, Stone subverts patriotic iconography to enable viewers to recognize it, see through it and rebel against it. The film is antiwar in the deepest, most basic sense—a film that shows how America uses words and images as psychological weapons, and then turns those same weapons against their creators. —M.Z.S. 

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Courtesy Universal Pictures
Tom Cruise in Oliver Stone's Born on the Fourth of July (1989)

KEYWORDS

video essay  |  Oliver Stone  |  film review  |  Hollywood  |  Vietnam War  |  masculinity  |  propaganda  |  patriotism  |  biopic

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THE AUTHORS

Kevin B. Lee is editor of the Keyframe journal at Fandor and programming executive at dGenerate Films.

More articles by Kevin B. Lee

Matt Zoller Seitz is a writer and filmmaker whose debut feature, the romantic comedy Home, is available through Netflix and Amazon. His writing on film and television has appeared in The New York Times, New York Press, and The Star Ledger, among other places. He is also the founder of The House Next Door, a movie and TV criticism website.

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Author's Website: The House Next Door