Born on the Fourth of July
People here - they don't give a sh*t about the war! Yeah! To them it's just a million
miles away. It's all bullsh*t, anyway. I mean, the government sold us a bill of goods
and we bought it, and got the sh*t kicked out of us, and for what, huh?
The film opens when Ron Kovic is a young boy living in Massapequa, Long Island. He grows up in a patriotic and Catholic household, instilling within him a strong sense of pride in the U.S. and his religion. As a high school teenager he wrestles for his high school and is an exceptional student. When a Marine recruiting sergeant visits his school and gives Ron and his fellow Seniors an impassioned lecture about the Corps, Ron decides to enlist. He misses his own prom, mainly because he's unable to ask his love interest, Donna. He confronts her at the dance, kisses her, then says goodbye.
The film then moves to Kovic's second tour in Vietnam. On patrol, his unit massacres a village of Vietnamese citizens, believing them to be enemy combatants. During the retreat, Kovic becomes disoriented and confused and accidentally shoots one of the new arrivals to his platoon, a younger private named Wilson. Overwhelmed by guilt, he appeals to his executive officer (XO) who tells him to forget the incident. The meeting has a negative effect on Ron who is crushed at being brushed off by his XO.
The platoon goes out on another hazardous patrol. During a firefight Kovic is critically wounded and trapped in a field for what seems like several hours. Paralyzed from the mid-chest down, he spends several months recovering at the hospital. The living conditions in the hospital are horrific; rats crawl freely on the floors, the staff is generally apathetic to their patients' needs, doctors visit infrequently, drug use is rampant and equipment is too old to be useful. He desperately tries to walk again with the use of crutches and braces despite warnings from his doctors. He suffers a bad fall that causes a compound fracture of his thighbone. The injury nearly robs him of his leg and he fights with the doctors who want to amputate.
Ron returns home, permanently in a wheelchair, with his leg intact. At home he begins to alienate his family and friends, complaining about students staging anti-war rallies across the country and rurning the American flag. Though he tries to maintain his dignity as a Marine, Ron gradually begins to become disillusioned, feeling that his government has betrayed him and his fellow Vietnam Veterans.
In Ron's absence his younger brother, Tommy, has already become staunchly anti-war, leading to a rift between them. Ron's parents also seem unable to deal with Ron's new attitude as a resentful, paralyzed veteran. Ron's problems are as much psychological as physical and he quickly becomes alcoholic and belligerent. During a parade on July 4, he shows signs of post traumatic stress when firecrackers explode and when a baby in the crowd starts crying (which reminds him of the massacre of the Vietnamese village). He reunites with a high-school friend, Timmy, also a wounded veteran, and the two spend Ron's birthday sharing war stories.
Ron visits Donna at her college in Syracuse. The two reminisce and she asks him to attend a vigil for the Kent State shootings. Ron doesn't; his chair prevents him from getting very far on campus because of curbs and stairways.
Ron's disillusionment grows severe enough that he has an intense fight with his mother after returning home drunk one night after having a barroom confrontation with a Korean War veteran who expressed no sympathy to Ron. Ron travels to a small town in Mexico ("The Village of the Sun") that seems to be a haven for paralyzed Nam veterans. He has his first sexual experience with a prostitute he believes he's in love with. Ron wants to ask her to marry him but he sees her with another customer and decides against it. Hooking up with another wheelchair-bound veteran, Charlie, who is furious over a prostitute laughing at his lack of sexual function due to his severe wounding in Vietnam, the two travel to what they believe will be a friendlier village. They're kicked out of their taxi for annoying the driver and are stranded on the side of the road. They quarrel and fight, knocking each other out of their wheelchairs. They're picked up by a man with a truck and eventually driven back to the "Village of the Sun".
On his way back to Long Island, Ron makes a side trek to Georgia to visit the parents and family of Private Wilson, the marine he killed during his tour. He tells them the real story about how their son died and confesses his guilt to them. Despite Wilson's widow stating that she can't forgive Ron for killing her husband, the confession seems to lift a heavy weight from Ron's conscience.
He joins Vietnam Veterans against the war (VVAW) and travels to the 1972 convention in Miami. He and his compatriots force their way into the convention hall during Richard Nixon's acceptance speech and cause a commotion that makes it onto the national news. Ron himself tells a reporter about his negative experiences in Vietnam and the VA hospital conditions. 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 so successfully this time.
The film ends with Kovic speaking at the 1976 democratic convention, shortly after the publication of his autobiography.
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