Highly subjective and exceedingly stylish, Oliver Stone’s biographical films have his fingerprints all over them, brazenly defying the anonymity of fact and reshaping history to match his singular, paranoid vision. Heaven & Earth attempts to blend Stone’s directorial flair with the memoirs of Le Ly Hayslip, a Vietnamese peasant who was displaced by the Indochina conflict. Telling the tale in her words and from a distinctly Vietnamese perspective, Stone provides a platform for an underserved community, but he never meshes the feminine voice with his overpowering aesthetic choices, allowing Le Ly’s subtle observations to be overshadowed by intrusive montage and compositional bombast. The resulting collaboration is sprawling to the point of ungainly, a well-intentioned and handsome picture complicated by authorial meddling that teeters on the brink of parody.
Born in an idyllic village of lush, green fields and foggy mountaintops, Le Ly (Hiep Thi Le) is the sixth child in a family of rice farmers, a clan spiritually bound to the land they harvest and pledged to maintaining familial honor. Conflict arises in this romanticized Vietnam through ideological differences, dividing her beloved nation into two separate entities at the behest of wealthy “allies” (France, United States, Japan, China), a rift that inspires the formation of the Viet Cong. As a teen, Le Ly absorbs the nationalistic rhetoric of the VC, pledging herself to the struggle for liberation from foreign influence and holding back tears as her younger brother leaves home to physically carry out this fight for freedom. In his absence, Le Ly is forced to adopt the role of a son, both supporting the VC from the homestead and harvesting crops with her aging parents.
Le Ly sees the natural balance of her village recede with the arrival of American troops, their choppers descending upon rice paddies in a swirl of monsoon rains, intervening in the Vietnam War to disrupt the spread of communism. Much like the French before them, their actual intercession in the political landscape is far from noble, resulting in contamination of the land and debaucherous plundering of the village's resources, transforming the once serene countryside into a hotbed of vice and vulgarity.
Mirroring the fury of conflict in her unconscious mind, Le Ly’s dreams are overwhelmed by strobing lights and visceral imagery, bringing her worst fears of captivity and death to the surface. Her premonitions come to fruition after being captured by the Vietnamese government for sabotaging an ARVN ground attack, a transgression punished by excruciating physical and mental torture. Though she’s electrocuted, beaten, and dipped in honey beside a nest of ravenous fire ants, she refuses to sell out the Viet Cong, being freed from bondage only after her mother donates a wedding dowry to the regime’s war coffers. In a bitterly ironic twist, Le Ly’s freedom leads to further abuse, finding her brutally raped and left for dead in an open grave by the Viet Cong, suspicious that her release from prison is tantamount to a confession. The audience experiences the degradation of violence first hand through the protagonist, her suffering honestly representing war, separated from the supposed glories of combat and conquest.
Moving to Saigon and sustaining herself by dealing drugs and sleeping with American G.I.s, Le Ly temporarily finds salvation in the form of a genteel, but disturbed, American serviceman. Worn down by his sensitivity and kind gestures, she acquiesces to Sergeant Steve Butler’s (Tommy Lee Jones) advances and makes the journey to “The New World,” ignoring the demons that plague the soldier’s dreams. The shift in tone that greets the California sun is jarring, finding the lily white suburbs of the USA as placid as a postcard, occupied by burly gluttons that are as loud and substantial as their refrigerators. Stone’s use of a fish eye lens perfectly represents the scope of the American surplus, placing an astonished Le Ly right in the center of the marketplace, capturing her wide-eyed astonishment at the kaleidoscope of colors in each aisle of the supermarket.
Outside of the grocery store, Le Ly struggles to adjust to the American way of life. Butler is supportive and sympathetic, quickly defending her against bigotry and the flippant remarks of ignorant family members, but his best efforts can’t bridge every cultural gap. As his career aspirations crumble at his feet and his passions turn to strong drink, Steve begins to resent Le Ly’s work ethic, condemning her efforts to open a restaurant and venture into the business world. This change in personality is sharp and unprecedented, never developed through expositional scenes or narrative clarification. The lack of polish is obvious during a solemn scene of dialogue that finds Tommy Lee Jones scrambling to color in his character through histrionic screams and forced emoting, turning what would have been a revelatory moment of confession into a frenzy of chewed scenery.
Sadly, excess isn’t a trait exclusive to the acting talent. Kitarô’s distracting score wavers between sweeping orchestral work and location-appropriate flute, faltering during string sections that are far too sentimental, limiting the impact of honest dialogue and realistic turmoil. Stone’s linguistic choices are just as puzzling, allowing Le Ly to speak English eloquently around her family members, but broken English in discussions with American soldiers. Though this tactic may have been employed to illustrate the frustrations of communication between markedly different languages, Hiep Thi Le’s varying degrees of elocution are insulting and distracting, tarnishing an otherwise stunning performance.
The erratic visual scheme also founders, cluttered with extraneous technique, ranging from unnecessary tilts, use of slow-motion and blunt force symbolism, embodied by constant insertion of shots of orange fire enveloping a pristine, blue sky. That being said, when an idea works, it works brilliantly, particularly the evocative photography and masterful shot composition, which captures the sodden fields of Vietnam with the warmth of a watercolor pastoral. Cinematographer Robert Richardson knows how to strike a mood through ambient lighting, stoking vivid imagery from natural illumination as it seeps through wooden shades, casting shadows in dimly-lit parlors.
Satirical notions that trickle into the second half also foster curiosity, paralleling American intemperance at home to the horrors of occupation, but Oliver Stone never reconciles his politics with his artistic flourishes. Heaven & Earth suffers from symptoms of the disease it chastises, relishing in the ugliness of conflict and stuffing itself on a cornucopia of costly cinematic gimmicks. Left stranded in this overwrought soup is Le Ly’s story of triumph, one nurtured in humbleness and a willingness to rebuild and reflect, standing in direct contrast to the voracity of Oliver Stone’s over-elaborate presentation.
Heaven & Earth (Warner Bros. Pictures, 1993)
Directed by Oliver Stone
Written by Le Ly Hayslip (book), Jay Wurts (book), James Hayslip (book) and Oliver Stone (screenplay)
Photographed by Robert Richardson