Heaven & Earth Review

Image for Heaven & Earth

The long and harrowing tale of Phung Le Ly, a young vietnamese girl caught up in the war.


Stone's earlier Vietnam-themed movies, Platoon and Born On The Fourth Of July, were generally admired, but there was a cavil that they represented entirely the viewpoint of an American trespasser in the South East Asian situation, focusing on the torment and agony of members of the US military to the exclusion of the far more appalling sufferings of the indigenous Vietnamese. Furthermore, all Stone's films, from Salvador to JFK, focus on obsessive, driven, hurting men and relegate women to the sidelines. In Heaven & Earth, based on the autobiographies of a Vietnamese woman, Stone redresses the balance, but in doing so makes arguably his worst film.

In a storyline that straggles the years, Stone follows Phung Le Ly (Hiep) from a happy peasant childhood through the destruction of her village by the French, indoctrination of her brothers by the Vietcong, torture by Americans, rape by the VC, servitude in Saigon, seduction by her master, unmarried motherhood, a tiny spot of prostitution, emigration as the wife of a Gl (Jones), suburban alienation as her husband cracks up, and a return to the old country to be reunited with her equally long-suffering mother (Chen). The problem is that Stone is not as close to this pain as he was to that of his other heroes, and so Le Ly's ordeal is less moving cinematically than the comparatively trivial unhappiness of a rich loser like Jim Morrison.

Hiep The Lei is remarkable, but Stone conceives of the idyll she has lost in typical happy peasant terms, with Charlie Chan English dialogue and pastoral visions of pretty rice paddies. There is a perceptible rush of authenticity when Tommy Lee Jones, a more typical Stone protagonist, turns up halfway through and self-destructs despite Le Ly's love, providing all the film's best scenes. Depicting Americans in Vietnam as mainly horny aggressors and in California as tasteless gluttons, this tries for an outsider's feel, but it's still an American's film, and all the bursts of Stone's cinematic verve cannot get inside the mind of its heroine.

Oliver Stone doesn't quite pull off this epic tale of a vietnamese girl, on either a cinematic level or as an insightful depiction of a woman's life and ordeals.