Passion is a suspect commodity in Hollywood — think about how many movies sweat to look cool — so the dizzy swoon of an Oliver Stone epic is, in its way, a welcome change of pace. It’s nice to see a filmmaker talk it like he walks it, even if the talk is mostly exhortatory monologues. Stone’s sense of endangered righteousness has sustained his career; that, and the fact that he’s the only director to continually rush into the haunted house of our national nightmare, Vietnam, and shine a flashlight.
But passion devoid of content — what you’d call a plot — is a silly thing, and so is Heaven and Earth. In theory, it’s a canny move: the third panel in Stone’s triptych. Platoon gave us the grunt’s-eye-view of Vietnam, Born on the Fourth of July showed where the shrapnel landed back home, and now we get to visit Hell again from the vantage point of Le Ly Hayslip (Hiep Thi Li), a victim/survivor. There’s also the sort-of-prequel J.F.K., which shows how Camelot — excuse me, Paradise — was lost in the first place, but the three ‘Nam films trace the hardening of Stone’s passion and the loosening of his artistic grip.
When the three are seen together, it’s clear that Heaven and Earth is the odd film out, and only partly because it’s Stone’s first movie to have a woman at its center. Stone’s best work follows a blueprint: An amoral man or unformed naif must choose between good and evil at a moment of ethical awakening. Platoon drags its callow hero (Charlie Sheen) to the point at which he reacts to the horror of war by killing satanic Sergeant Barnes (Tom Berenger). Fragging an officer may be the ultimate act of nihilism to anyone outside a platoon, but Stone gets you to buy into, and mourn for, the inversion of values.
Likewise, Ron Kovic (Tom Cruise) achieves moral manhood in Born on the Fourth of July only after his body is destroyed. As a paraplegic veteran, he is able to throw off the smothering jingoism of his upbringing and become an antiwar activist.
Heaven and Earth never brings its heroine to that crossroads of action. In fact, the movie’s signal fault is that Le Ly never really does anything. Rather, things are done unto her. Based on the real Hayslip’s two autobiographies, the movie traverses a broad arc of events from a childhood on farmlands near Da Nang to entrepreneurial success in San Diego. Along the way, Le Ly is recruited, tortured, raped, and seduced by various factions of the Vietnam conflict. She gives birth, sells contraband to GIs, turns to prostitution, falls for a kindly Marine (Tommy Lee Jones), and follows him home to California, where her marriage cracks apart from postwar stress.
Enough soap there for Gone With the Wind, right? Yet Stone seems incapable of honest corn. Every frame aspires to a nobler purpose that has more to do with Stone’s tragic vision than with Le Ly’s story. The stations of Stone’s passion are all here — a grandiose score (by Kitaro), lush, harsh imagery — but events wash over passive Le Ly like water over a rock. It’s no fault of Hiep Thi Li, whom the camera instinctively loves, and every so often she gets to show a subversive toughness that Barbara Stanwyck or Vivien Leigh would have recognized.
Mostly, though, she’s stuck in Olivia De Havilland territory. Joan Chen, as Le Ly’s mother, has it worse: Her natural glamour tamped down in the manner of the best Hollywood peasantry, teeth smeared with Fung-O or some such substance, Chen suggests Luise Rainer’s O-Lan in the starchy 1937 version of The Good Earth. Her role’s the same too: She’s that old unquenchable spirit of the land, here dispensing New Age bromides like ”You have completed your circle of growth.”
It’s easy to make fun of the comic-strip dialogue, the agitprop posturing, the sloppy plotting in which the where or when of a scene gets lost, because Stone doesn’t seem to care. He’s faking the passion this time. The only segments of Heaven and Earth that connect with viewers are those dealing with Le Ly’s tormented husband, Steve Butler. They’re obviously the scenes that connected with Stone, too, and you can feel his relief at being on home turf. He’s locked into seeing Butler through his heroine’s eyes, but he has more interest in the soldier than the war bride.
That makes Heaven and Earth a genuine waste of celluloid, since the real Le Ly Hayslip appears to have been plenty active. The narration indicates that she became a successful restaurateur — shades of Mildred Pierce — but we see no evidence of her business acumen. An end crawl tells us that she went on to found the East Meets West Foundation, which certainly seems to hold the potential for drama. But Stone can’t show us this side of the woman, because then he’d have to forfeit his vision of the sainted martyr. What’s appalling is that there’s a story here worth telling and possibly an actress capable of telling it. What’s more appalling is that Stone’s first film with a woman at its center only reinforces his misogyny. Platoon: B+