Directed by: Oliver Stone.
Written by: Oliver Stone based on the books by Le Ly Hayslip and Jay Wurts and James Hayslip.
Starring: Hiep Thi Le (Le Ly), Tommy Lee Jones (Steve Butler), Haing S. Ngor (Papa), Joan Chen (Mama), Conchata Ferrell (Bernice), Debbie Reynolds (Eugenia). Long Nguyen (Anh), Vivian Wu (Madame Lien).
The first two films in Oliver Stone’s Vietnam trilogy – Platoon (1986) and Born on the Fourth of July (1989) were widely celebrated – they were critical and box office hits, and won Stone two Best Director Oscars. The third chapter, Heaven & Earth, came and went in 1993 without a lot of notice – it got good, but not great reviews, little box office and was forgotten come awards time, and has largely faded from the cultural collective memory. That’s a shame for a number of reasons. For one, while it isn’t quite up to the level of the previous two films, it is still a very good movie. For another, it’s one of the few (if not only) major American film to attempt to dramatize the effect on the Vietnam War on the people of Vietnam. It’s unique in another way to Stone’s filmography as well – it was the first, and remains the only, one of his films to have a female protagonist (you could argue for Mallory Knox in Natural Born Killers – but I think Mickey really is the main character, or Blake Lively’s character in Savages, but that’s more of an ensemble piece). In this series so far, I have tried to highlight Stone’s “woman problem” – in most of his films, his female characters are either underwritten or non-existent – and sometimes, the characters border on offensive caricatures. Whether intentional on Stone’s part or not, Heaven & Earth acts as a corrective to that.
The film tells the story of Le Ly (Hiep Thi Le), a Vietnamese woman who grew up in a small village where all the people really want is to be left alone to grow their crops and raise their family. She is one of the many children of her proud, yet kind father (Oscar winner for The Killing Fields Haing S. Ngor) and a mother who is hard on her children (Joan Chen). Several of Le Ly’s brothers “volunteered” to join the rebellion when Le Ly was a child – and the family has not seen them, or even heard from them, in years – and they are presumed dead. The war throws their lives into chaos – as the village is put into a nearly impossible situation. When the Americans visit the village, they punished them for aiding the Viet Cong. When the Viet Cong visit, they are punished (far more severely) for apparently aiding the Americans. She will eventually move to Saigon with her mother – but only after she is brutally raped by the Viet Cong. In the city, she is still a teenage girl – and despite the fact that she has seen and endured more than anyone should have to, she is still naïve. She and her mother get jobs working for a wealthy family as maids – where the husband/father seduces her. She thinks its love – but gets a harsh lesson in reality when she becomes pregnant. She endures much more before she meets Steve Butler – an American Marine, who wants an “Oriental” wife. During the war, he seems heroic – but after the war, now back in America, she discovers his darker side. She will, once again, have to find the strength to endure.
In Platoon, Vietnam is pretty much painted as one, confusing, massive jungle of a place, where the soldiers don’t know where they are, and what’s going on around them. In the few scenes in Born on the Fourth of July in Vietnam, the country is even more chaotic. In Heaven & Earth, Stone finds the beauty in the country (although the Vietnam government would not let Stone shoot there) – as the fields are almost an impossibly bright green, particularly in the early scenes, where to Le Ly, the country is still calm and idyllic. As the movie progresses, and Le Ly’s life gets harder, Stone shoots the scenes in her village mainly at night – where the idyllic surroundings become more foreboding. The scenes in the city are even more so – everything is run down and dirty – and degraded, which Le Ly which Le Ly is as well. When the action shifts the America, Stone repeats the trick he did in Born on Fourth of July’s opening scenes, painting the suburbs as per Americana – complete with Debbie Reynolds as Butler’s mother – and endless rows of a supermarket representing the kind of choice Le Ly has never had. Then, Stone flips it, and shows the ugliness and excess of American life – all that meat consumed, all the food wasted. This mirrors Butler’s transformation from someone seen as purely heroic – he literally swoops in on helicopter to save Le Ly and her children in Vietnam – into a pathetic, violent man once back on American soil.
There are reasons why Heaven & Earth didn’t connect much with American audiences when I was released. The film is almost unremittingly grim – there are only a few moments in the film where Le Ly seems to be happy, and they are almost immediately taken away from her by Stone. Although she went on to build up a very successful life in America after the events of the movie – including writing the two books the film is based on – Stone leaves that part out in an ending that offers hope for the future, but doesn’t really show the real life happy ending. Large segments of American movie audiences don’t particularly respond to movies that are very critical of America either – and Heaven & Earth is certainly that. Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July were as well, but they offered the counterpoint of American soldiers audiences could get behind. Here, the American soldiers are all ugly and cruel – treating Vietnam and their people with at best cruel indifference. This is how Le Ly experienced it – and there is undeniable truth in that portrayal – it’s just not a portrayal Americans really want to see.
That is a shame, of course, because Heaven & Earth tells a story that audiences haven’t really seen before – about the effects of America’s War on the regular people of Vietnam (we haven’t really seen a similar film about the effects of the War on Terror on those in Iraq and Afghanistan either for that matter). In Hiep Thi Le, Stone found a terrific actress to play the lead role – a woman who does what she needs to in order to survive, someone who others look down upon and use, but retains her dignity. She has worked sporadically in movies and TV since Heaven & Earth, but has yet to receive a role this good again. For his part, Tommy Lee Jones delivers an excellent performance as well – which at first blush seems a little like Jekyll and Hyde, as he’s seemingly perfect at first and then turns into a monster. But with repeated viewings, you realize that Jones shades more than a little darkness into those early scenes, and even when he becomes somewhat monstrous near the end, his character remains human. While the two other Stone films Jones appears in – JFK (1991) and Natural Born Killers (1994) are both better than Heaven & Earth, I think this is Jones’ strongest performance for Stone.
Heaven & Earth doesn’t quite live up to the other two films in Stone’s Vietnam trilogy, or the best of his work. It’s a little too long, perhaps a little too grim and Stone doesn’t quite have as firm of a grasp as to who is main character is. Still, Heaven & Earth is a unique movie – and a rather daring one for Stone. It’s also a necessary one. The Vietnam War was a tragedy for all involved – Stone showed is the American side in his previous films – and with Heaven & Earth he shows us the Vietnamese side – one that is grossly underrepresented in American movies.