I saw Born on the Fourth of July for the first time as my annual Fourth of July movie last week and followed it up with a viewing of On the Waterfront via the fairly new Criterion blu ray release. I had seen Kazan's classic before, but that was in 2007, and at 14, all I remember really noticing about it was that Eva Marie Saint looked and acted different than classic Hollywood female stars that I was accustomed to, and that Marlon Brando had a fascinating set of eyes.
What prompted me to see these two films was the Matt Zoller Seitz interview on The Cinephiliacs, in which he talks for a good twenty-five minutes about the greatness of Oliver Stone's seminal 1989 movie. Seitz calls it one of his all-time favorites (and for my money I think it's Stone's best film) in part because it deals with the idea of a person who is formed by social and cultural norms to the point where he lacks any real individuality, then proceeds to recognize that he's resting on a shaky foundation, and decides to change. This person of course is Ron Kovic, the real-life parapelegic on whose memoir Stone's movie is based (his story also served as the inspiration for Hal Ashby's Coming Home). I agree in part with Seitz as far as the importance of such a change goes, but one thing he doesn't seem to acknowledge is distinguishing between individuality and individualism. Sure, any story of a person changing from one thing to another is usually going to be moving, an affirmation of the old being-your-own-man ideal. And yet what it seems to me that it's more interesting when one considers if they are choosing between individuality--respecting certain truths and morally sound foundations while also relying on your own judgement to make decisions--and individualism, which is taking the idea of one's right to be oneself as an excuse to do whatever the hell they want.
I suppose though Seitz can't really allow much room for either of those forms of individuality since he's really narrowed down this form of change to people who have been fed lies and have consequently formed a false identity. He's talking about those who have been programmed by their societies to be somebody that's incompatible with individual choice. Ron Kovic had been raised in an American culture where patriotism meant trying to be the all-American gold ol' boy, the athlete who is compelled to excel, to win, to take the prettiest girl to prom, and then, as the next logical step, go fight in the war. Seitz suggests that this culture is designed to prepare men for battle, only to have them become disillusioned by it upon returning from their tour of duty. To what extent, though, is this rejection of this foundation simply an act of individualism, or selfishness? Ultimately there's not a lot of room to engage in Kovic's decision to reject his past simply because so much of the movie is built around the abhorrence of the Vietnam War. Born on the Fourth of July is fairly easy to grasp because it basically comes down to whether you're a pacifist or not. Stone has some fascinating things to say about our government and culture, but, while never reductive, the movie never really complicates matters too much due to its historical context. Especially in modern day America, it's hard to make a case against Ron Kovic.
The reason I followed Born on the Fourth of July with On the Waterfront is partly because I've just been meaning to revisit it for a while, and also because Seitz actually mentioned it alongside Stone's film as a movie that addresses false foundations and change. Indeed, Brando's Terry Malloy has been living under the sway of his brother Charlie (Rod Steiger) and the mob-connected waterfront union boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) his whole life. He isn't so much under the supposition that what he's been doing (which includes taking falls in the boxing ring) has been admirable or great, but rather is simply living in a hazy middle ground, with neither the fear nor the courage to escape it. While Kovic thinks he was the victim of an American lie, he still had a certain sense of autonomy that Terry really doesn't seem to have. Terry "could have been a contender," (and even been somewhat like the young Kovic), but instead he let those with more power take control of his life. In the famous taxi scene, one could take Terry's lament as an implication of his brother for not letting him "be somebody," but really Terry is the one to blame. He was afraid of saying no to a system of authority. It is this fear that unites Terry Malloy and Ron Kovic. Kovic made decisions early on that Malloy did not, and yet one gathers his entire youth he was succumbing to the pressures of his country to fit a certain image. He was afraid of not living up to it. Terry's fear also meant succumbing to a certain thing, only for him it wasn't to fit an image but to be imageless.