This is Oliver Stone’s year of the woman. After helping bring The Joy Luck Club to the screen (he produced it), he has now written and directed Heaven and Earth, a sprawling, high-powered soap opera loosely based on the memoirs of Le Ly Hayslip, who grew up in the rice-farming central Vietnamese village of Ky La during the 1950s only to see the guts of her country ripped apart by war. Since Stone has often been taken to task for his testosterone-pumped vision (is there one memorable female character in the entire Stone canon?), it’s hard to avoid seeing his 1993 productions as a twin act of atonement. With Heaven and Earth, he has made the weeper to end all weepers — a film in which the heroine (played by newcomer Hiep Thi Le) sees her family splintered and her village destroyed; endures the humiliations of rape, torture, and prostitution; and finally meets her romantic savior, a U.S. Marine (Tommy Lee Jones) who’s such a gentle, heroic Prince Charming that you just know he’ll turn out to be bad news indeed.
The odyssey begins in Ky La, where Le Ly’s childhood is depicted as a blissful peasant idyll. Re-created in Thailand, the village, with its wandering animals, tidy tumbledown huts, and psychedelic green grass, looks like a surreal historical amusement park: Vietnamworld. (There’s even a Jurassic Park gateway at the village’s entrance.) The idyll doesn’t last long, however, as war intrudes in a chaotic spasm of mayhem.
When it comes to showcasing Le Ly’s brutalization at the hands of South Vietnamese torturers (who use electroshock) and bullying Viet Cong, the movie is vintage Stone: raw, manipulative, powerful. But when Le Ly abandons this war-torn hellhole for Saigon, where she finds work as a housekeeper and falls in love with her rich employer (who makes her pregnant), it becomes clear that, despite Hiep Thi Le’s tremulous presence, the heroine is drawn in strictly two dimensions. She’s blurry and passive, a Victim. Everything seems to be happening to her, which simultaneously reinforces and undercuts the film’s feminist vision.
By the time Tommy Lee Jones shows up as Marine Sgt. Steve Butler, we’re ready for more Stone fireworks, and we get them, as Butler marries Le Ly, transplants her to suburban America (a ’60s caricature of plastic food and plastic people — just watch Stone have a field day when Le Ly goes grocery shopping), and turns out to be a guilt-ridden psycho whose soul has been eaten away by atrocities he committed during the war. Jones’ showy, wild-eyed performance certainly isn’t boring, but it can’t diffuse the cloud of cliche that hovers over this role.
Few would quarrel with Stone’s essential vision of the Vietnam experience: that it was a cataclysmic tragedy causing wounds that still fester in the American — and Vietnamese — consciousness. By now, though, after Platoon (1986) and Born on the Fourth of July (1989), Stone’s continued obsession with Vietnam bespeaks a demagogic single-mindedness as exhausting as it is illuminating. In Heaven and Earth, he uses Le Ly’s story didactically: The movie is so saturated with reverence for its saintly, long-suffering heroine that it never quite breathes. If the film offers any message worth heeding, it’s that Stone, like America itself, needs to put this war behind him. C+