The US stayed in Vietnam too long, and Oliver Stone has returned to the subject one time too many with Heaven & Earth.
Drawing upon two autobiographical works [When Heaven and Earth Changed Places and Child of War, Woman of Peace] 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.
An early-1950s prologue presents the rice-farming community of Ky La, in central Vietnam, as a simple paradise. 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. She flees to Saigon at 18, later meeting Yank Sgt Steve Butler (Tommy Lee Jones).
At the 90-minute mark, Butler, Le Ly, their son and her previous son arrive in suburban San Diego, and perhaps the film’s most effective moments catalogue her experiences seeing American middle-class lifestyles and consumerism for the first time.
In writing this screenplay, foreign to him in more ways than one, Stone has taken no overt political position, and consequently adds very little to either the general discussion of Vietnam or his own. Shot mostly in Thailand, with some background views having been grabbed on location in Vietnam, pic looks impressive.