Heaven & Earth

1993, R, 140 min. Directed by Oliver Stone. Starring Hiep Thi Le, Tommy Lee Jones, Joan Chen, Haing S. Ngor, Conchata Ferrell.

REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Dec. 24, 1993

Imagine that one of those two-fisted, male-identified Hollywood directors of yore suddenly tweaked the reins a bit and made a woman-focused melodrama: perhaps some filmmaker like Howard Hawks directing some long-suffering doyenne like Jane Wyman in some odd crossbreed action weepie. You'd end up with some kind of interesting new hybrid, Johnny Guitar, or a complete and utter mess. With Heaven & Earth, Oliver Stone has created the latter. Stone's latest film is a project he views as the third part of his “Vietnam trilogy,” following Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July. This time, Stone views the war experience through the eyes of a Vietnamese citizen -- a peasant child who grows to become a woman, a prisoner, a rape victim, a black marketeer, a bar hostess, a war bride, an American, a survivor. The movie is inspired by two autobiographical books by Le Ly Hayslip, When Heaven and Earth Changed Places and Child of War, Woman of Peace. (Hayslip has gone on to become the executive director of the East Meets West Foundation, a charitable relief and world peace organization.) Heaven & Earth is a story of adversity and the human toll of modern warfare. But it's delivered with all the usual Stone bombast and fury. Nothing in-between the poles of good and bad exists in Stone's universe -- no gray, no subtlety, no nuance. He comes after the viewer with a one-two punch and genuinely hopes to draw some blood. In many ways, this approach worked for Stone in some of his other “issue” films like Wall Street, Talk Radio, JFK and the rest of his “trilogy.” He hits the audience with intractable social wrongs and rubs their collective guilt and conscience in it. And though Stone gravitates toward bigger-than-life heroes, in this victimized woman's story it just doesn't work. Le Ly becomes a long-suffering heroine, first brutalized by Americans in her homeland, then further brutalized by Americans once she arrives on their shores. Stone portrays her as a victim who manages to overcome the odds. He could just have easily made the choice to portray her as a canny survivor. Stone set out to try something he's never attempted before: to tell a female protagonist's story (Stone's dedication of the film to his mother is a further indication of this desire). It's clear in so many ways that Stone is uncomfortable with this direction. Heaven and earth themselves were created in fewer days than it seemingly requires to watch this overly long and unfocused movie. Some of the cinematography that recreates the bucolic landscape of pre-war Vietnam is stunning in its beauty. Tommy Lee Jones is mesmerizing as a tortured soldier who can't leave the killing behind. But it seems as if his story and Le Ly's story hardly intersect. What Oliver Stone has created is his Mrs. Miniver for the Vietnam era.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More Oliver Stone Films
Oliver Stone tackles the famous whistleblower

Marc Savlov, Sept. 16, 2016

Oliver Stone’s movie is volatile, nasty, hypnotic, gory, and nearly irrestible – at least when the young 'uns aren't onscreen.

Marjorie Baumgarten, July 6, 2012

More by Marjorie Baumgarten
Joy Ride
Raunchy road trip goes all the way to China for filthy fun

July 7, 2023

All That Breathes
The struggle by three men to save the endangered black kite

March 31, 2023


Heaven & Earth, Oliver Stone, Hiep Thi Le, Tommy Lee Jones, Joan Chen, Haing S. Ngor, Conchata Ferrell

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Keep up with happenings around town

Kevin Curtin's bimonthly cannabis musings

Austin's queerest news and events

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle