Reed Irvine - Editor
|April-A , 1990||XIX-7|
DOES "BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY" LIE?
By Diana West
Ron Kovic says he notches a door in his Redondo Beach, Calif., home to mark his every interview since "Born on the Fourth of July" opened in December, but clearly this morning's cordial telephone chat won't make the cut. Mr. Kovic's not answering questions; he's writing them down, impassively recording a list of queries probing the veracity of events depicted in the screen version of his 1976 memoir as directed and conscripted by Oliver Stone, Events such as the 1970 Syracuse University student strike--which, contrary to what shows up on screen in "Born on the Fourth of July," did not end in a violent clash between brutal police and peaceable students. Then there is the 1972 Republican National Convention--which, again, contrary to the vivid impression this modern American epic creates, did not erupt into a bloody melee in which police threw Kovic from his wheelchair and beat him as he lay helpless on the ground. And what about that family in Georgia that Tom Cruise (who plays Ron Kovic) visits in the movie, the kin of the Marine that Mr. Kovic believes he mistakenly shot and killed? Does that family really exist?
"I've enjoyed talking to you, and we should try to do this," Mr. Kovic says. Here it comes, the Hollywood brush-off. "We have a bit of a procedure," he explains. And it goes like this:' don't call me, call my publicist. Alan Sutton, manager of national publicity for Universal Studios, the company distributing "Born," is equally cautious, if less talkative. Mr. Sutton copies down the same list of questions, only to answer "no comment" the following day. His suggestion: Call Ron Kovic. Better yet, call Oliver Stone. Oliver Stone--of course. "I'm the biographer," Mr. Stone told the Los Angeles Times. "I'm obviously telling Ron's story. I'm not screwing with the facts...."
Diana West is a reporter for The Washington Times. This article was published in The Times on Feb. 23, 1990. It is reprinted with permission.
Getting to Oliver Stone or, for that matter, Ron Kovic, means getting by publicist Andrea Jaffe, who, from her Sunset Boulevard offices, does double duty for Mr. Kovic and Mr. Stone. As usual, the questions are required up front, but at least Ms. Jaffe registers some reaction to them. "You know, the movie is not a documentary," she says, taking down the first question. Right. But it is being represented as truth. "It is representative as truth but, you know, mostly all of the names, all of the people are fictionalized. You know, in most movies, because of, you know, various legal things---I mean, they did or didn't happen." Let's try this again. Ms. Jaffe listens to Mr. Stone's quote: "I'm not screwing with the facts."
"He didn't screw around with the facts," says Ms. Jaffe. "You're very confused with the difference between a documentary and the difference between a movie, and it's unfair to the movie." And anyway, Ms. Jaffe wants to know, "what makes you feel this was getting depicted, fact by fact, as one man's life? From the poster slogan--"a true story of innocence lost and courage found"--to the news stories and reviews, "Born on the Fourth of July" has been portrayed as the real-life story of Ron Kovic, decorated Marine turned anti-war activist.
But don't blame the media. Mr. Kovic, considering a run for Congress, has been known to post himself in the lobbies of Southern California theaters showing "Born." There, apparently operating on the premise of today an audience, tomorrow a constituency, he has, according to the Los Angeles Times, been making the following pitch: "This is the story of my life. I'm Ron Kovic. I'm thinking about running for Congress against [incumbent Republican] Robert Dornan. Do you think I should run?" (Ultimately, Kovic decided against the political foray.) That sort of thing is bound to leave the impression that "Born on the Fourth of July" is a true story. "It is a true story," says Ms. Jaffe. And Hollywood is a strange place.
Sgt. Ronald Lawrence Kovic served in the Vietnam War, having joined the Marine Corps in 1964 after his senior year at Massapequa High School on Long Island, New York. His war record is unimpeachably admirable, and the nation will always owe him a debt of gratitude above and beyond the Navy Commendation Medal and the Bronze Star with which the government recognized his valorous contributions. This is indisputable. Also indisputable is the fact that while on his second tour of duty in Vietnam in January 1968, Mr. Kovic's spinal cord was severed by an enemy bullet, leaving him paralyzed from the middle of his chest to his toes. In the spring of 1971, Mr. Kovic became deeply involved in the anti-war movement, emerging as a visible member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, and embarking on a career of sorts as a perennial activist."Born on the Fourt
of July" dramatizes these factual events in an attempt to chronicle Mr. Kovic's trans- formation from gung-ho recruit to anti-war demonstrator. To the extent that the movie portrays "real" people and "real" events, it is a "true" story. But under scrutiny, this meticulous cinematic portrait of a man and an era reveals a willful twisting of fact to re-fashion history into the dramatic and political points the moviemakers hope to make. Just ask some of the folks Mr. Kovic grew up with who still live in Massapequa.
Now 50, Al Bevilaqua was Mr. Kovic's wrestling coach at Massapequa High School. After reading the script in 1988, Mr. Bevilaqua refused to sign a release granting permission to use his name in the movie. As a result, the name of the coach character (a dead ringer for a Parris Island drill instructor who exhorts his students to kill, kill, kill) was changed. (The portrait of Mr. Kovic's nameless wrestling coach in the book "Born on the Fourth of July" is far tamer.) "I'm not that type of person; I don't use that word," Mr. Bevilaqua told Newsday in 1988. "I have no problem with perception," he said. "If Ron Kovic saw me as an ogre--no problem. My only concern is when you take things out of the category of perception and start saying that this is the truth."
The longer this movie runs, the more people there are who find themselves with similar concerns. And not just concerns limited to personal horizons, such as those of the Massapequan who might have heard that Mr. Kovic's mother is upset about her screen portrait as a religious fanatic and robotic anti-communist, or the one-time Arthur's Bar regular who knows that no one ever hassled Ron Kovic in that watering hole for losing the Vietnam war.
Massapequans may be puzzled by the absence of a true- life model for the movie's "Boyer burger," a doughnut- shaped meat patty that made one of Ron's movie chums rich quick but such concerns are secondary to questions about whether the historical record is being falsified.
Last month, The New York Times reported on a pocket of criticism in Syracuse, N.Y., the site, according to a disturbing sequence in "Born on the Fourth of July" of a brutal police action against peacefully striking university students. In the movie, Ron is visiting a leader of the 1970 Syracuse University strike. As students listen to speakers (among them the late Abbie Hoffman) an army of Syracuse policemen, identifiable by their shoulder patches, mass on campus. Wearing full riot gear, they rap their shields with their nightsticks, and, unprovoked, attack the student assembly. One even cracks wheelchair-bound Ron over the head.
New York State Sen. Nancy Larraine Hoffmann, a Democrat, was a Syracuse student in 1970 who participated in that strike. "It was totally unlike the characterization in the movie," she says, describing the peaceful weeklong strike. "There was no police presence even within sight. At no time was there any show of force, or any attempt to disperse students listening to speakers. It troubles me to see police officers maligned for Hollywood sensationalism." David Ifshin, a Washington lawyer who in 1970 was Syracuse student body president, concurs, praising "the patience and wisdom" of campus officials, as well as then-Syracuse police chief Thomas J. Sardino. Adding insult to injury, as far as Mr.Ifshin is concerned, is the featured role of Abbie Hoffman, who, to his knowledge, was not on the Syracuse campus at that time.
Of course, neither, it seems, was Ron Kovic. "All too often, Hollywood makes a docudrama that then becomes the definitive cultural statement of an era;' says Nancy Larraine Hoffmann, the New York state senator. "They play fast and loose with the truth when it suits them."
Meanwhile, Michael Vavonese, a lawyer for the Syracuse Police Benevolent Association, has tried to chat with Oliver Stone about the matter. Mr. Stone has not returned Mr. Vavonese's phone calls, and the Syracuse lawyer continues to explore his legal options. He's heard nothing, he says, except "an indication [from someone in Mr. Stone's office] that it was only a symbolic portrayal."
Speaking of "symbolic portrayals," consider the pivotal action in the screen transformation of Tom Cruise's Ron Kovic: the pilgrimage to the family of the Marine Mr. Kovic believes he accidentally shot and killed in Vietnam in October 1967. The screen reads, "Venus, Georgia." The town is small. The people are poor. The sky is gray. The graveyard is bleak. It is raining when Ron arrives at a ramshackle farmhouse and wheels through a trash-strewn yard scattered with dogs and chickens. Inside a cluttered parlor, he makes small talk with the dead Marine's father, mother and widow, whose young son amuses himself-- how ironic--with a popgun. Finally, Ron tells them: He shot their beloved Billy. There. He's said it. It's out. Ma, Pa and Wifey may be stripped of what thin comfort they took in believing Billy's death was as glorious as the death notice reported, but Ron is purged. He's a new man. The next time we see him, he's a protester at the Republican National Convention in Miami Beach, 1972.
So, an unsuspecting viewer might say, that's what happened to Ron Kovic. But not so fast: There is no "Venus, Georgia." Perhaps, an unsuspecting viewer might say, the town name was changed to protect the innocent. Perhaps--only there is no innocent. That is, there is no family. At least not that Ron Kovic ever visited. It was all a dream. Phil Shuman, a television reporter for KNBC in Los Angeles, discovered this peculiar fact while covering Mr. Kovic and his proto- campaign on the movie-house hustings for the congressional seat currently held by Rep. Robert Dernan, California Republican. After the cameras stopped rolling, Mr. Shuman pressed him on the question of the bereaved family.
"The gist of what he said was it was a nightmare that kept recurring," Mr. Shuman says. "He told Oliver Stone about it, and Oliver Stone thought it was important enough to include in the film, so they recreated his nightmare. And that's the basis for that scene." But what's the basis for that nightmare? Weaving in and out of Mr. Kovic's memoir are references to "the corporal from Georgia," a Marine Mr. Kovic believes he mistakenly shot and killed during a chaotic battle in October 1967. In both the book and the movie, Mr. Kovic confesses to his major his fears of having killed a fellow Marine, a presumably seasoned corporal in the book, a raw private in the movie.
The book major is a sympathetic character; a man Ron Kovic calls his "friend." The movie major is a decidedly unsympathetic character who ends his discussion with young Kovic by threatening to "take his head" if any more is said about the matter. The real-life major, traced by U.S. Marine Lt. Col. Fred Peck, would not consent to an interview. Through Lt. Col. Peck, the major confirmed Ron Kovic voiced such concerns to him. The major investigated and concluded it was unlikely Mr. Kovic had killed the Marine. Subsequently, the major promoted Mr. Kovic, making him the leader of a new scout group.
In the movie, Ron is, by 1972, a full-fledged anti-war activist. Ron materializes on the floor of the Republican National Convention with a few other Vietnam Veterans Against the War. They make a scene, attract a few cameras, block the aisle, and rile the delegates, a mass of bloated Republican faces in straw boaters. One of them spits on Ron. Security guards move in, roughly pushing and pulling the veterans from the hall, physically preventing reporters from following. Outside, Ron is thrown from his wheelchair by an undercover cop and beaten. A melee breaks out as the demonstrators clash with the police.
Funny thing, but Robert Dornan remembers things differently. He should know: It was he who persuaded a pair of security guards to allow Mr. Kovic into the convention hall in the first place. It seems that Mr. Dornan and Mr. Kovic, potential political rivals, have a history.
In the early 1970s, Mr. Dornan hosted a television talk show in Los Angeles and Mr. Kovic appeared as his guest. When in Miami Beach Mr. Kovic asked Mr. Dornan to get him into the convention hall, "I said sure," recalls Mr. Dornan. "It was history. I had sneaked into the San Francisco convention eight years before. I know what it's like."
Mr. Dornan says he made Mr. Kovic promise not to make a scene. That, however, did not stop the Vietnam veteran, who joined forces with two other disabled anti- war veterans. "It was not as big a disturbance as the movie showed, but it was a disturbance," says Mr. Dornan. "They were screaming. The guards came down and politely pulled their chairs backward. [They] put them out peaceably." A United Press International report of the incident describes the scene this way: "After about five minutes, security agents wheeled them un protesting out a side door." "I went out and watched him and the other two congratulating one another, bragging about what they'd accomplished. They were euphoric," continues Mr. Dornan. Not only had they managed to shake things up a little inside, but also they told Mr. Dornan they were off to dine with Jane Fonda and Daniel Ellsberg. "Now that's about 180 degrees from being beaten into the ground, face bloodied and having your medals ripped off your chest," says Mr. Dornan.
The California congressman isn't the only one whose recollection of that day at the convention differs from Mr. Kovic's. In the book, "Born on the Fourth of July," Mr. Kovic writes about his live television convention hall interview with Roger Mudd, then a CBS correspondent. What does Mr. Mudd recall about Mr. Kovic that day? Apparently, not nearly so much as Mr. Kovic recalls about Mr. Mudd. The veteran television correspondent says he was directed to investigate the disturbance in which Mr. Kovic was involved. "I remember staying off to the side and observing the swirling lights and people pressing in around him, and the sort of Vietnam veterans cadre that was with him," says Mr. Mudd. "I have no recollection of ever interviewing him. I recommended against the interview because I thought it was a publicity-seeking interview, as, of course, most of them were. I don't want to accuse him of anything I'm not sure about; all I can tell you is that from the day I saw [his] book, [I remember thinking] that what he described as having happened didn't happen according to my memory."
So much for the sturm and drang of Miami Beach. The Los Angeles Times reported in January 1989 that this violent sequence was actually a bit of "dramatic license." The scuffle that ended in Mr. Kovic's being thrown from his wheelchair and arrested is said to have occurred at a demonstration in front of Nixon campaign headquarters in Los Angeles.
At least that's what Mr. Kovic writes in his book, describing a scene in which he was popping wheelies in front of trucks on Wilshire Boulevard, tying up traffic for blocks, and resisting arrest. If indeed the Los Angeles incident happened exactly as he says it did, is it honest; is it responsible to weave it into the historical record of the Miami Beach convention?
The practice of fictionalizing history and presenting the result, as fact is by no means unique to "Born." The New York Times' Richard Bernstein last fall explored the zone between "poetic truth and historical falsification" in such movies as "Mississippi Burning" and "Fat Man and Little Boy." He concluded that "artists who present as fact things that never happened, who refuse to allow truth to interfere with a good story, are betraying their art and history as well."
Mr. Bernstein raised an even more disturbing issue: the tendency of the public to grant, "to [moviemakers]-- and to the enormously powerful medium they control-- a special role to comment on our past and present." Certainly "Born on the Fourth of July," recently honored with eight Oscar nominations, has been granted this "special role," ably assisted by weighty critical endorsements. "May be the final word on Vietnam," writes The New York Times' Vincent Canby. And even if New York magazine's David Denby isn't nuts about the movie, he has this to say about the moviemaker: "Truth is all-important to Oliver Stone."
Is it? In a recent Washington Post column entitled "'Born on the Fourth:' It's a Lie," Vietnam veteran Richard Eilert takes exception to what he calls "an inherent dishonesty in Stone's depiction of those who served." Discussing "Born" along with Mr. Stone's earlier Vietnam picture, "Platoon," Mr. Eilert notes that both "are laced with enough fact to make the stories difficult to refute." This is certainly true of "Platoon," a fictional tale claiming no identifiable characters or events. But "Born on the Fourth of July," put over as biography and history, is another matter. As the publicist says, "things did or didn't happen." In other words, how much dramatic license can a moviemaker take and still call something true?
"Good question," says publicist Andrea Jaffe, dutifully taking down this last question for Mr. Kovic and Mr. Stone. "I like that question because it gives them a chance to respond." Still waiting.
"Born on the Fourth of July" had been considered a good bet to win the best picture Oscar award. Diana West's article may well have been the reason it won only two: director and editing. Reflecting on this, L.A. Times film editor Jack Mathews wrote, "Late-in-the-race assaults by right-wing political pundit Patrick Buchanan and saying critics who repeated Buchanan's charges that Stone and co- screenwriter Ron Kovic had revamped history to suit their own political agenda didn't help." Buchanan's column was largely based on Miss West's revelations.
Stone complained that no one had given him a chance to respond to the charge that he had played fast and loose with the facts. Diana West made diligent efforts to get Stone, Kovic and their agents to respond. On March 26, the lawyer for the Syracuse Police Benevolent Society did receive an apology for the false portrayal of the Syracuse police. Stone sent him a transcript of a statement he made on Larry King's radio show in which he said he "obviously took license" to convey "the spirit of the time." He said, "I apologize to the people of Syracuse."
Oliver Stone's 1986 film, "Platoon," portrayed our men in Vietnam as drug addicts and baby killers. His film "Salvador" portrayed the terrorists in that country as representing "a legitimate peasant revolution." Send the enclosed card or write your own letter to Oliver Stone, 9100 Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90069.
AIM REPORT is published twice monthly by Accuracy In Media, Inc., 1275-K Street, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20005, and is free to AIM members. Dues and contributions to AIM are tax deductible. The AIM Report is mailed 3rd class to those whose contribution is at least $20 a year and 1st class to those contributing $30 a year or more. Non- members subscriptions are $35 (1st class mail).
I WAS PLEASED THAT OLIVER STONE'S FILM, "BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY," WON only two of the eight Oscars for which it had been nominated---for direction and editing. As pointed out in the postscript to her article, Diana West's expose of the distortions in the film may well have contributed to that outcome. Jack Mathews, film editor of the L.A. Times, blamed the film's unexpectedly poor showing on a column by Pat Buchanan which was based on Diana West's expose. The popularity of Stone's films, "Platoon" and "Born on the Fourth of July," proves that poison will sell if it is attractively packaged. He has made a fortune from his anti-Vietnam, anti-military, anti-America and pro-left passions.
WILL STONE AND HIS ILK EVER WAKE UP TO THE FACT THAT THEIR LOVE AFFAIR WITH communist terrorists such as the Vietcong, the Sandinistas and the FMLN in El Salvador, was stupid? The emotional commitment, even on the part of journalists who are presumably better informed than film actors and directors, dies hard. Julia Preston, a Washington Post reporter who covered Central America and is now on leave from the paper, tells in an article in The New York Review of Books of April 12 how she realized the night before the elections in Nicaragua that the Sandinistas were going to lose. This revelation came as a result of a conversation she had with a policeman "who looked like a Sandinista but who was going to cast his vote for Chamorro's National Opposition Union." It suddenly dawned on her that them were a lot of poor Nicaraguans who were not happy with the Sandinistas. She says that Ortega's concession speech "restated the more appealing elements of the Sandinista cause: their commitment to social justice and national self-determination," and that by the end of the speech, "a roomful of hardened foreign reporters (myself included) were struggling to hold back their tears."
THE AIM CONFERENCE IN ORLANDO ON "THE COLLAPSE OF COMMUNISM: WHO HELPED, Who Hindered and What's Next?" got rave reviews from those who attended, including a very good contingent of students. The conferees did more than listen and talk. They signed a letter to President Bush urging him to support the Lithuanian declaration of independence. The letter pointed out that since 1947, 90 newly independent countries have come into existence, usually with the gracious consent of their former colonial masters and with promises of technical and economic assistance. It noted that the Soviet Union had been in the forefront of pressing for independence for the dependencies of "the imperialist powers." Lithuania, which was admittedly illegally seized by the USSR in 1940, has declared its independence from the last great empire. Its case legally and morally is even stronger than the case for independence of the 13 American colonies in 1776. The oppression they have experienced in the past 50 years is incomparably worse than anything listed in our Declaration of Independence. Our letter to President Bush said that Vilnius is to tyranny today what Philadelphia was in 1776; that Thomas Jefferson would surely side with those seeking freedom', and that his place in history would be diminished if he sided with the tyrant. This letter, with 55 signatures, has been sent to the White House, and I gave a copy to Senator Alfonse D'Amato, as he was leaving for Lithuania, asking him to give it to President Landsbergis.
SENATOR D'AMATO AND SENATOR MALCOLM WALLOP BOTH SPOKE AT A NEWS CONFERENCE sponsored by the National Council to Support the Democracy Movements in the USSR on April 4. They demanded stronger support by the Bush administration for Lithuania. Sen. Wallop read an eloquent statement that reaffirmed U.S. refusal to recognize the illegal Soviet seizure of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. It said, "We express our solidarity with them and call upon the Soviet Union to listen to their calls for freedom and self-determination.... The peoples living in captive nations not only ask for but are entitled to lasting protection of their God-given rights. The United States shall continue to call upon all governments and states to uphold the letter and the spirit of the United Nations Charter and the Helsinki Final Act until freedom and independence has been achieved for all captive nations." He said Pres. Bush had made this statement on June 14, 1989 and that if it was a good statement then, it is a good statement now. Senator D'Amato disclosed that he was leaving that day for Lithuania using a Lithuanian visa. Newsworthy? I thought so, but, although many reporters attended, almost no coverage resulted.
OTHERS WHO SPOKE AT THIS NEWS CONFERENCE WERE MARTIN COLMAN, THE ORGANIZER, Howard Phillips of Conservative Caucus, John Lenczowski of the Council for Inter-American Security, four representatives of Lithuanian and Baltic organizations and myself. The Wall Street Journal had said the previous day that conservatives were only "grumbling" about Bush's weakness on Lithuania. Here they roared, but the media muted their message to a whisper. I challenged the reporters present to expose the fact that our media had faded to protest the serious infringement of freedom of the press by the Soviets in Lithuania. They had not only kicked foreign reporters out of the country, but they had denied the Lithuanians the use of the printing plant on which their newspapers were being printed. We heard not a peep of protest from our big media!
DR. EDWARD TELLER WAS THE SPEAKER AT THE BANQUET AT OUR ORLANDO CONFERENCE and was honored with our Hero of Freedom Award for the immense contribution he made to the defense of the Free World. Dr. Teller was successful in his efforts to keep the United States from following the advice of Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer and others opposed to the development of the H-bomb, and he played the key role in the bomb's development. In 1983, when we were again confronted with the possibility that the Soviet nuclear build-up might again make us subject to nuclear blackmail, his championing of defense against a missile attack, the SDI, led President Reagan to give that program high priority. The inability of the Soviet Union to match us in this area is one of the important factors that led Gorbachev to admit the bankruptcy of their system. In his remarks, Dr. Teller disclosed for the first time a most important spin-off from the SDI program. He revealed that the "brilliant pebbles," the small computerized orbiting weapons that are now the heart of the SDI anti-missile defense, can be used to scan the globe and report what they see with far greater speed and completeness of coverage than can our present system of geo synchronous satellites. He predicted that this would be a revolutionary development in the transmission of information, not simply for military intelligence, but for the general public. Had this been operational at the time of the Chernobyl nuclear power accident, the world would have known about it almost instantly, instead of two days later when the radiation reached Sweden. Dr. Teller reflected on the problems and issues that would be raised by this system. He came out strongly for maximizing the utilization of this technology to provide information to the public.
CORRECTION OF A CORRECTION: AT ORLANDO, OTTO OTEPKA, THE FORMER STATE Department security officer who ended up on Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy's hit list because of his diligence and his refusal to bend the rules, told me that the correction about J. Robert Oppenheimer that I put in the Notes in the March-A issue was unnecessary. We had said in an earlier AIM Report that Oppenheimer was a long-time member of the Communist Party. That had been disputed, and I acknowledged that my recollection of what my some had said was wrong. Otepka, who was involved in a long legal battle with the State Department as a result of the efforts of Bobby Kennedy and Secretary of State Dean Rusk to punish him for not bending the security rules, told me that his attorney in that celebrated case, the late Judge Roger Robb, had told him that there was good evidence that Robert Oppenheimer was a Communist Party member. Robb was the attorney for the Atomic Energy Commission when it revoked Oppenheimer's security clearance. Otepka said the evidence of Oppenheimer's party membership was never made public because it came from electronic surveillance. He felt that he could now disclose what he had been told because Roger Robb had died.
THE RESPONSE OF THOSE WHO PARTICIPATED IN THE AIM CONFERENCE IN EL SALVADOR was so enthusiastic that we are thinking of holding a similar conference in Nicaragua after the inauguration of Mrs. Chamorro. If you think you might be interested in participating in a conference in Nicaragua, please fill out and return the coupon below. This will help us make our plans and will insure that you are informed well in advance.