Heaven and Earth (United States, 1993)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

With Heaven and Earth, Oliver Stone has completed his so-called "Vietnam Trilogy" - three films that examine different aspects of the war that, to this point, has provided the centerpiece of Stone's filmmaking career.

The story begins in the village of Ky La in central Vietnam during the 1950s, where Phung Le Ly (Hiep Thi Le) is a peasant girl tending the rice paddies with her mother (Joan Chen), while being lectured on various aspects of life by her father (Haing Ngor). As Le Ly grows, she and her village are put through diverse torments as they become caught between American-backed South Vietnamese government troops and the Viet Cong. Le Ly is tortured by one side and raped by the other before leaving Ky La for Saigon and a life as a prostitute. There she meets Sgt. Steve Butler (Tommy Lee Jones), a lonely and kindly American GI who's looking for someone to settle down with. The pair marry and leave Vietnam for San Diego.

Heaven and Earth has the epic scope one would expect from a film of this magnitude, but it lacks much of the narrative strength of Stone's first two Vietnamese tales. This film possesses only flashes of the power of Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July. It is a solid motion picture, and its story is certainly worth committing to film, but Heaven and Earth is no masterpiece.

The strongest segment of the movie is its first half, which takes place in Vietnam. The pace is less frenzied, and events are better-motivated and more clearly-connected. Watching the helpless victimization of Le Ly (symbolically representing her country) is an emotionally-draining experience, but it illustrates one of Stone's favorite themes - that in war, there are no winners, and the innocent always suffer the worst. The Viet Cong and South Vietnamese government both engage in innumerable horrifying acts. There is a torture scene involving honey, ants, and snakes that is more disturbing to watch than some of the bloodiest sequences.

Once Steve Butler enters the film, the narrative direction begins to waver. His sketchily-developed romance with Le Ly happens too quickly. Large portions of Le Ly's adaptation to life in California are glossed over in favor of an unnecessarily-long epilogue. These missteps, while not fatal, are noticeable.

Several interlocking themes are examined. The first, and most obvious, deals with the parallel sufferings of Le Ly and Butler. Her words, "Different skin, same suffering," elucidate a point that Stone's trilogy has repeatedly returned to. The protagonists in these films are always those whose souls pay a terrible price in service to violence. As Le Ly is brutalized by the war, so too is her country, and the healing process is no easier on the land than on the people. "Rebuilding after a war is like starting a family by being raped," says Le Ly's brother.

Oliver Stone's directorial flair is in full evidence here, with a number of memorable camera shots, perhaps the most impressive of which occurs during the first landing in Ky La of a South Vietnamese government helicopter. The use of flashbacks, whether in black-and-white or color, is overdone, as are the voiceovers, which at times fall into the trap of telling the audience things that would have been better off shown.

The choice of newcomer Hiep Thi Le as Le Ly may become a source of debate. She is adequate, but not peerless, and the limits of her acting ability are highlighted in several emotionally-charged scenes opposite Haing Ngor and Tommy Lee Jones, both of whom give credible, wrenching performances.

Those who disliked Stone's previous entries of the trilogy will find little to celebrate in Heaven and Earth. Although the weakest of the films, it is easily recognizable as the director's work by its stylistic, thematic, and narrative content. The story itself is ambitious, and only partially-realized, but what there is on screen is potent enough to warrant a viewing for those who admire the film maker and aren't dissuaded by grim subjects.

Heaven and Earth (United States, 1993)

Run Time: 2:18
U.S. Release Date: 1993-12-25
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2:35:1