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.