Many films have been made about the Vietnam War, and no other filmmaker has tackled the subject with as much fiery passion as Oliver Stone. His Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July are regarded as two of the finest films made on the subject, and deservedly so – they're passionate, personal movies which explore the war's horrific consequences from different angles. However, Stone's third Vietnam movie, Heaven & Earth, has largely been forgotten. Why? It could be due to the fact that the film shifts the emphasis from American men to a Vietnamese woman, that it stars a little-known actress or that it explores certain side effects of the war American viewers simply aren't interested in confronting. Or – if we're really being honest – it could be due to the fact that the film really isn't one of Stone's better efforts.
Stone has long been a fundamentally masculine filmmaker. Early successes included his screenplays for Conan the Barbarian and Scarface, and he has devoted much of his life to creating portraits of Great Men (“great” in the sense of significance, not character) of all shapes and sizes. He's given us rich, complex depictions of real-life figures (Richard Nixon, Ron Kovic, George W. Bush) and fictional ones (Gordon Gekko, Barry Champlain, Mickey Knox), and though he concerns himself with left-wing politics and real-world issues to a degree that most “guy movie” filmmakers don't, there's an undeniably strong element of testosterone in the way he tells his stories. Stone directs with big, sweeping gestures and brushes subtlety aside for the sake of making his point as forcefully and memorably as possible. He's a fine, distinctive director, but his insights often seems limited to the world of men. As a general rule, Stone's female characters are underdeveloped, forgettable or unconvincing, so it shouldn't be much of a surprise that the one female-centric film he's made never quite works as well as it ought to.
Le Ly (Hiep Thi Le, Green Dragon) is a young girl living in a Vietnamese village. Life in the village is simple and peaceful, but all of that changes when communist insurgents arrive and begin waging war with the American military. Over the years that follow, Le Ly is kidnapped, tortured, raped and enslaved by powerful men from all sides of the conflict, but eventually finds solace in the arms of kind-hearted American Gunnery Sergeant Steve Butler (Tommy Lee Jones, The Fugitive). Once the war concludes, she travels to America with him and starts a new life... but Steve is haunted by his experiences in Vietnam, and his demons quickly begin to transform him into yet another of Le Ly's living nightmares.
Despite the valiant efforts of actress Hiep Thi Le (making her big-screen debut), Le Ly never comes across as a particularly interesting character. Nearly every scene she's in (and she's in nearly every scene) inspires the same reaction: “Wow, that poor girl.” We feel sorry for her, but creating a character we feel empathy for isn't the same thing as creating a character we're interested in. Stone seems genuinely angry about the awful things Le Ly has been required to endure, but Le Ly herself seems like little more than a helpless victim, crying out in distress as the film tosses her from one awful scenario to another. It's fair for Stone to demonstrate more interest in sociopolitical circumstances than character development, but if Stone wasn't interested in doing substantial character work, he shouldn't have centered the film around a single character.
Heaven & Earth fares best during its first half, when it presents a moving (if excessively melodramatic) portrait of Le Ly's increasingly difficult life in Vietnam. We observe as her humble, peaceful village is torn to shreds by “allies” who do more harm than good, and wince as men from various sides of the conflict (the Viet Cong, the American military, the South Vietnamese government) indulge in rape, propaganda and senseless killing. Stone forces us to witness a familiar conflict with fresh eyes, and it's here that his angry, passionate filmmaking hits its stride. Alas, once this stretch of the film dissolves, we still have a long, long way to go.
The movie begins a somewhat abrupt shift around the halfway point. The arrival of Tommy Lee Jones heralds the film's sudden transition into a politically-charged relationship drama, and it's here that the film really starts to fall apart. The Jones character is a composite of several men encountered by the real Le Ly, and he feels like it: he makes a bizarre, poorly-conveyed transition from doting lover to deranged psychopath, and Jones struggles to sell us on the shift. Even so, the character feels more fully-realized than Le Ly, because this is the sort of guy – or rather, several of the guys – that Stone knows how to write. There are shades of Born on the Fourth of July in the brief moments which reveal the amount of damage the war has done to Jones, but these moments are necessarily shoved into the background because that's not the movie Stone is making this time around. This is a well-intentioned film, but nonetheless an underwhelming finish to the director's Vietnam trilogy.
Heaven & Earth
Rating: ★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 145 minutes
Release Year: 1993