The U.S. stayed in Vietnam too long, and Oliver Stone has returned to the subject one time too many with “Heaven and Earth.” Final installment in the director’s trilogy of films on the nation’s convulsive recent history represents an attempt to show the war and its aftermath from a Vietnamese p.o.v., but the sledgehammer approach to storytelling merely results in audience numbness and distance from the potentially moving material. Critical and commercial response will be muted.
This is also Stone’s first film centering upon a female protagonist, but, unlike his first two powerful Nam sagas, “Platoon” and “Born on the Fourth of July,” this one won’t win him any Oscars. Drawing upon two autobiographical works by his central figure, Stone presents nearly 40 years in the life of Le Ly as a succession of events with a melodrama quotient that might have challenged even Joan Crawford or Lana Turner.
The vessel for Stone’s latest agitated history lesson is a Vietnamese Buddhist peasant who, in the way she is soiled, dominated, exploited, raped, brutalized, colonized, transformed and torn apart from her family, is no doubt supposed to represent Vietnam itself. Unfortunately, the analogy works better than the personal, emotional story that, even if true down to the smallest detail, as related here comes off as conventional and cliched.
An early-1950s prologue presents the rice-farming community of Ky La, in central Vietnam, as a simple paradise, “the most beautiful village in the world, ” and indeed it looks to be, a patch of green situated gloriously amid towering limestone peaks. But the French destroyed the quiet hamlet, and subsequently, per the heroine, “everything changed forever” with the arrival of the Viet Cong in 1963.
Le Ly (Hiep Thi Le) sees her two brothers run off to join the communists, who eventually torture and rape her. To escape the turmoil in the midlands, she flees to Saigon at 18, where she joins a wealthy household but promptly becomes pregnant by the master.
Kicked out of the house but supported financially, Le Ly moves to Da Nang, where her sister has become a cheap whore, then back to her village, where her parents are in dire straits andshe’s perceived as a tramp.
Back in Saigon, she meets Yank Sgt. Steve Butler (Tommy Lee Jones), who just needs someone to talk to but, of course, is interested in something else from Le Ly as well. He proposes immediately, vowing to take her away from all this and settle her down in San Diego, but it takes three years and the final evacuation of Americans from the country for his promise to come true.
At the 90-minute mark, Butler, Le Ly, their son and her previous son arrive in suburbia, and perhaps the film’s most effective moments catalogue her experiences seeing American middle-class lifestyles and consumerism for the first time. Butler’s family and home are lightly and amusingly caricatured, just enough to let Americans see how others might see them and to create an alien feeling that would take some getting used to.
But over time, things go better for Le Ly than for Butler, the latter a classic case of a soldier who’s kept his wartime atrocities bottled up and cracks under the pressure of normal life.
While his wife slowly works her way up the professional and economic ladder, and finds sustenance in Buddhism, he implodes, resulting in irrational and emotional acts of violence that doom the family as a unit.
Finale, which has Le Ly making her first visit to her native village in many years, provides a way to say that if the U.S. suffered a great deal because of the traumatic war, Vietnam suffered much more and is still suffering.
All this plays just about as melodramatically and simplistically as it sounds , but there are numerous other problems as well. Lecturing tone is set from the beginning, and the accents of the Asian performers, some thicker than others, are not only intermittently hard to wade through, but result in their characters speaking a sort of pidgin English that makes them seem more simple and less natural than they should.
Worst of all is the score by Japanese composer Kitaro, which thunderously announces and then underlines the film’s every occurrence. It’s almost a parody of a self-importantly dramatic soundtrack, and its incessant insistence upon communicating the picture’s import allows for no moments of quiet insight or intimacy.
In writing this screenplay, foreign to him in more ways than one, Stone has taken no overt political position, and adds very little to the general discussion of Vietnam. Despite the different perspective, and unlike his previous pix on the subject, this story doesn’t provide him with a forum to say much new or interesting. Nor, despite the intensity of the dramatic situations, does he make it feel personal or impassioned.
Newcomer Hiep Thi Le goes through the histrionic motions as the beleaguered Le Ly, but the effect of the perf is mostly surface sweat and little inner suffering. Jones tries to hit some unusual notes by emphasizing the vulnerable aspects of a professional killer, but that part of the tortured vet never becomes fully dimensional.
Joan Chen is aged and made deliberately ugly to play Le Ly’s long-suffering mother in what ultimately seems like serious miscasting. Haing S. Ngor, an Oscar winner for “The Killing Fields,” is seen to considerably less effect here as Le Ly’s father. Debbie Reynolds has a throwaway in her first screen role in over 20 years.
Shot mostly in Thailand, with some background views having been grabbed on location in Vietnam, pic looks impressive. Production designer Victor Kempster and his team have done a memorable job recreating the village as well as teeming Saigon, and lenser Robert Richardson has once again fashioned some colorfully dense widescreen images of the recent past.
But the net effect is that Stone and his audience have been here before, and the point of diminishing returns has definitely been reached.