Tom Cruise plays Ron Kovic, in a performance that earned him his first Academy Award nomination. Oliver Stone (himself a Vietnam veteran) co-wrote the screenplay with Kovic, and also produced and directed the film. Stone wanted to film the movie in Vietnam, but because relations between the United States and Vietnam had not yet been normalized, it was instead filmed in the Philippines. The film is considered part of Stone's "trilogy" of films about the Vietnam War—following Platoon (1986) and preceding Heaven & Earth (1993).
Born on the Fourth of July was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won two, for Best Director and Best Film Editing; it also won four Golden Globe Awards and a Directors Guild of America Award. The film was a critical and commercial success, grossing $161,001,698 worldwide.
In the summer of 1956 in Massapequa, Long Island, New York, 10-year-old Ron Kovic plays soldier in the woods and attends a Fourth of July parade. After watching President John F. Kennedy's inaugural address, it inspires him to enlist in the Marines. Later, Kovic attends an impassioned lecture about the Marine Corps. He decides to enlist and misses his prom because he is unable to secure a date with his love interest, Donna. He confronts her at the prom and has a dance with her on his last night before leaving.
Now a Marine sergeant and on patrol during his second Vietnam tour in October 1967, Kovic's unit kills a number of Vietnamese civilians in a village, believing them to be enemy combatants. During the retreat, Kovic accidentally kills one of the new arrivals to his platoon, a younger private first class named Wilson. During a firefight in January 1968, Kovic is critically wounded, but a fellow Marine rescues him. Paralyzed from the mid-chest down, he spends several months recovering at the Bronx Veterans Administration hospital, where the hospital conditions are poor, with rats roaming the floors; the doctors and nurses ignore patients and abuse drugs, and the equipment is too old to be useful. Kovic desperately tries to walk again with the use of crutches and braces, despite repeated warnings from his doctors.
In 1969, Kovic returns home, permanently in a wheelchair, with his leg intact. Though he tries to maintain his dignity as a United States Marine, Kovic gradually becomes disillusioned and resorts to alcohol. In Kovic's absence, his younger brother Tommy (Josh Evans) has already become staunchly anti-war, remarking to Kovic what the war had done to him. During an Independence Day parade, Kovic shows signs of post-traumatic stress when firecrackers explode. When he is asked to give a speech, a baby in the crowd starts crying. After being unable to finish the speech and wheeled off stage, he reunites with his old high school friend Timmy Burns, who is also a wounded veteran, and the two spend Kovic's birthday sharing war stories. Later, Kovic goes to visit Donna at her college in Syracuse, New York, where the two reminisce and she asks him to attend a vigil for the victims of the Kent State shootings. He and Donna are separated when she and her fellow students are taken away by the police at her college for demonstrating against the Vietnam War. Ron goes to a bar and almost gets into a fight with a fellow Marine. After Ron has a heated argument with his mother, his father decides to send him to Mexico.
He arrives in "The Village of the Sun", which seems to be a haven for paralyzed Vietnam veterans. He has his first sexual experience with a prostitute, whom he believes he loves, until he sees her with another customer. He hooks up with another wheelchair-bound veteran, Charlie, and the two travel to what they believe will be a friendlier village. After annoying their taxicab driver, they end up stranded on the side of the road and arguing with each other. They are picked up by a man with a truck and driven back to the "Village of the Sun." Going back to Long Island, Kovic travels to Georgia to visit Wilson's parents and family. He tells them the true story about their son's death and confesses his guilt.
Kovic joins Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) and travels to the 1972 Republican National Convention in Miami. He tells a reporter about his negative experiences in Vietnam and the VA hospital conditions, that the Vietnam War is wrong, and that the Vietnamese people are a proud people fighting against the US for their independence, all of which fuels rage from the surrounding Nixon supporters. His interview is cut short when guards eject him and his fellow vets from the hall and attempt to turn them over to the police. They manage to break free from the police, regroup, and charge the hall again, though not successfully this time. Kovic speaks at the 1976 Democratic National Convention, shortly after the publication of his autobiography, Born on the Fourth of July.
- Tom Cruise as Ron Kovic
- Bryan Larkin as Young Ron Kovic
- Raymond J. Barry as Eli Kovic
- Caroline Kava as Patricia Kovic
- Josh Evans as Tommy Kovic
- Seth Allen as Young Tommy Kovic
- Frank Whaley as Timmy Burns
- Jerry Levine as Steve Boyer
- Kyra Sedgwick as Donna
- Jessica Prunell as Young Donna
- Rob Camilletti as Tommy Finelli
- Stephen Baldwin as Billy Vorsovich
- Tom Berenger as GySgt. Hayes
- Willem Dafoe as Charlie
- John Getz as Marine Major – Vietnam
- Michael Compotaro as Wilson
- Cordelia González as María Elena
- Holly Marie Combs as Jenny
- Vivica A. Fox as Hooker in VA hospital
- Wayne Knight as Official #2 – Democratic Convention
- James LeGros as Platoon – Vietnam
- Ed Lauter as Legion Commander
- R. D. Call as chaplain – Vietnam
- Ron Kovic as World War II veteran
- Oliver Stone as television interviewer
- Abbie Hoffman as protest speaker
- Edie Brickell as cafe singer
- Reg E. Cathey as Speaker