Without the passionate interest of writer-director Oliver Stone, "Heaven and Earth" and its woman's point of view on the trauma of Vietnam might not have made it to the screen. But Stone is this film's burden as well as its champion. His presence and his style are so overwrought and insistent that the most lasting impression the movie makes concerns not Vietnam or even women but the sensibility and technique of Oliver Stone himself.
No one has ever accused Stone of being too subtle, but neither can he be faulted for not caring or caving in to popular taste. In fact, when he harnesses his particular passions to his gift for polemical filmmaking, as he did with "Platoon," "Born on the Fourth of July" and "JFK," he has made such subjects as the Vietnam War and the Kennedy assassination the subject of intense national discussion.
And while this is Stone's third Vietnam film, which may be more than people think they want to see, he shouldn't be faulted for returning to that time and place any more than Indian-born Ismail Merchant and American James Ivory would be for turning again to England's golden age. The problem is not the story Stone wants to convey but the way he is impelled to tell it.
Even when, as in the case of this largely true story of the enormously eventful Vietnam-to-America life of Le Ly Hayslip, Stone has a strong and intrinsically interesting tale to relate, he can't help acting as if he had to twist your arm to get your attention. This film's emotions are so big they tend to wear you out, uncomfortably forcing audiences to feel something they would probably just as willingly embrace on their own.
Based on two memoirs by Hayslip, "When Heaven and Earth Changed Places" and "Child of War, Woman of Peace," Stone's film covers nearly four decades of chaotic life experience for Hayslip during an equally cataclysmic period in her country's history. Although telling the story from a woman's point of view is a welcome departure for Vietnam films, as is its desire to be evenhanded about the Vietnamese, Stone's epic, operatic style has survived unchanged from his earlier films.
Hayslip begins her story in the 1950s, in a lushly photographed (by Robert Richardson) countryside that is as visually romanticized as anything in "The Secret Garden." Although the people of Ky La lived in bucolic oneness with the Earth, that peace was not fated to last, as "the most beautiful village on Earth" is burned to the ground by the French even before the opening credits are done. And there is more to come.
After the French the Viet Cong show up, angry and armed and speaking passionately about the need to reunite the two halves of their country. Although her father (Haing S. Ngor) is suspicious, knowing that "freedom is never a gift, it must be won and won again," Le Ly's brothers join up and go north and she herself becomes a devoted cadre.
Taken into custody by the South Vietnamese and their inept American advisers, Le Ly (played by the nonprofessional but very capable Hiep Thi Li) is beaten and graphically tortured. But no sooner does she manage to get out than the VC find her sudden freedom suspicious and proceed to take their own sadistic vengeance on her. Everywhere she goes, even to a nominally cushy job in a rich man's house, trouble has no difficulty following.
Stone (working with production designer Victor Kempster) is quite good at the physical re-creation of Vietnam, especially the savage, anything-goes urban jungle atmosphere that the American occupation created, but he is so busy trying to beat the drum for this parade of horrors that he doesn't allow a more natural and lasting kind of emotional connection to form between the characters and the audience.
Only when Le Ly meets the American in her life, Sgt. Steve Butler (Tommy Lee Jones), does "Heaven and Earth" stop for breath. Terribly earnest and sweet at first, although prone to troublesome nightmares, Butler (who is a composite of several Americans) wins the heart of Le Ly. But Butler and his nightmares turn out to be more complicated than anticipated, and Le Ly can't be accused of exaggeration when she says at one point "me and men, we have bad karma."
Although it has its share of strong moments, "Heaven and Earth" does not have enough quietly touching ones, as if Stone felt the story were too important and the world too hard a place to clutter up with the likes of that. And though nominally told from the Vietnamese point of view, a look at the forthcoming "The Scent of Green Papaya," Vietnam's Oscar entry, shows how far from that country's sensibility Stone's hectoring methods are. While the passion and verve he brings to filmmaking are enviable, more trust in the audience would also be nice.
'Heaven and Earth'
Hiep Thi Le: Le Ly
Tommy Lee Jones: Steve Butler
Joan Chen: Mama
Haing S. Ngor: Papa
A Ixtlan/ New Regency/Todd-AO/TAE production, in association with Regency Enterprises, Le Studio Canal+ and Alcor Films, released by Warner Bros. Pictures. Director Oliver Stone. Producers Oliver Stone, Arnon Milchan, Robert Kline, A. Kitman Ho. Executive producer Mario Kassar. Screenplay Oliver Stone, based on the books "When Heaven and Earth Changed Places" by Le Ly Hayslip with Jay Wurts and "Child of War, Woman of Peace" by Le Ly Hayslip with James Hayslip. Cinematographer Robert Richardson. Editor David Brenner, Sally Menke. Costumes Ha Nguyen. Music Kitaro. Production design Victor Kempster. Art directors Stephen Spence, Leslie Tomkins, Chaiyan 'Lek' Chunsuttiwat. Set decorator Ted Glass. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.
MPAA rated: R, for "violence, language and sexuality." Times guidelines: rape, graphic torture, prostitution and one very bloody scene.