Oliver Stone: Heaven & Earth (1993) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
19Apr/130

Oliver Stone: Heaven & Earth (1993)

Based on the memoirs of Le Ly Hayslip, Heaven & Earth seeks to tell the side of the Vietnam war through the eyes of its citizens.  Le Jy (Hiep Thi Le) has her idyllic existence shattered by the arrival of American war planes.  Her own countrymen grow less supportive as the influence of the Viet Cong grows.  Eventually she finds herself in the arms of Steve Butler (Tommy Lee Jones), a soldier with heavy eyes who just wants to get her out of the country and into America. So brightlyAndrewCommentaryBannerGiven the frame of my initial hesitation, watching all of Oliver Stone's films has been a clear-cut positive experience.  I was not so lucky this week.

I am very conflicted on Heaven & Earth and most of my thoughts involve one hand and then flipping over to the other.  At the least, I am proud that Stone was able to make and try to market a mainstream approach to the Vietnam War from the perspective of those we were fighting against.  That mindset resulted in one of the best war films in recent years (Clint Eastwood's Letters From Iwo Jima) and given the greatness of Stone's previous films, Vietnam or otherwise, I had little reason to suspect that this wouldn't be as impressive.

Instead I ended up watching the kind of Stone film I thought we'd be seeing from the beginning.  It's filled with huge, bombastic emotions filmed with the same kind of attention to extreme style in service of the scene that we saw last week in JFKHeaven & Earth is by equal measures gorgeous and nauseating, veering from crisp and soaring views of the Vietnam countryside before the war to the high-contrast black and white that accompanies the most harrowing moments at the end.  Those early scenes are the most surprising visually, showing the usually intense and personal Stone communing with a much wider environmental palette.

But I'm less certain about the story that he hangs his wonderful style from.  Heaven & Earth was adapted from two memoirs by Vietnamese writer Le Ly Hayslip detailing her experience surviving the war.  However, the screenplay is attributed just to Oliver Stone.  Not having read the memoirs I cannot comment how accurately Stone captures their representation of the war and her eventual life in America, but Stone's go-for-broke sensibility nearly breaks key passages of the film.

Take those gorgeous opening shots, by themselves they establish a perfect vista, but Stone presents the Vietnamese like the mythical foreign other that can give us paradiese - and what great luck they all speak English!  He redeems himself somewhat when the war starts and he represents both the Viet Cong and American forces with equal disgust.  But then he has yet another rape scene where the camera just has to leer over Le Ly's body.  This is a male director's perspective, not Le Ly's.

No matter how impressive or harrowing, Stone has difficulty presenting these moments in her perspective, so he naturally defaults back to his.  He's able to transition better in later scenes with Le Ly and Steve in America, especially their first meal where just a bit of wide-angle distortion makes fridge seem like it's going to swallow Le Ly whole.  Stone is able to put these scenes from her view much better, and I loved one late film detail about how the other housewives in the neighborhood have accepted Le Ly because of her problems with Steve.

Those positives aside, they still have to deal with the lingering issues of the first half.  I'm still seeing a master at work, I'm just not as moved by the product. Consumerism will swallow you wholeKyle Commentary BannerMuch of the movie feels to me like a comic/graphic novel nostalgically retelling a personal history many years later. Cancel that—it feels like Stone took that comic and used it as the screenplay and storyboards for his movie. The dialogue, and especially the voiceover, often offers the kind of broad exposition we would need if film wasn't so adept at showing transitional events or capturing an emotional state. But because film is so well-suited to those things (and Stone is usually in hyperdrive mode in trying to convey them), much of what's spoken seems tone-deaf, unaware of the audience.

I'm curious what Le Ly Hayslip thought of the finished movie. It rarely seems to reflect a real life, much of which is owed to your point about Stone's inability to really put himself or the audience into her shoes. Many moments that seem to have genuine intentions come off as overwrought and false even as the performances try to anchor them in some emotional reality. The frantic cutting, swooping cameras, and exaggerated lighting and music attempt to compensate for the lack of humanity in the film (except when the overbearing sentimentality smothers it straight to death).

There are a few moments where these effects actually work to the movie's advantage, such as a handful of scenes where Le Ly returns to California with Jones' character. The kitchen scene you mentioned captures the drastic change and overwhelming frenzy of suburban life, capped off with a shot of what looks like an entire meal's worth of food being pushed into the in-sink disposal. What seems like the endless excess of the fluorescent-lit supermarket acts as a great contrast to the settings we've seen in the first part of the film, and all of this uses our own disorientation to quickly and distinctly build a bond with Le Ly. It's a stretch of success that's short-lived.

I'm less conflicted about Heaven & Earth than you—I also admire Stone's attempt to tell this story, but with a few small exceptions can't admire the execution. Jones is fantastic but belongs in a different movie, and Hiep Thi Le does indeed manage the monumental task of avoiding melodrama—that's all the more impressive to me considering that most of the movie is dripping with it. Stone's techniques do not serve this story, and the unintended effect is that scenes which should build our empathy with the characters do very little to help us see them as real individuals, and in the worst moments make their suffering seem like silly spectacle.

It's hard to tear down a movie like this that works so hard to capture a valuable and potentially insightful human experience—but not that hard. Let us take a moment

So, where’s the controversy?

Tiny Andrew CommentaryStone almost deflates the potential controversy by having the film open on such an idyllic note.  It undercuts some of the more harrowing moments because many are still in this crisp style.  Then there's that ending which could be controversial to the right crowd since it boils down to "This place was paradise, but thank the spirits you're an American now!"

 

Tiny Kyle CommentaryI could see controversy existing now in an attempt to tell the story of a Vietnamese-American woman through a movie that views everything about her as either a cliché or a mystical other, but this was released some 2-3 years after Dances With Wolves won the Oscar. So.

 

Not the best sign

 How did Stone hit the zeitgeist this time?

Tiny Andrew CommentaryThere's no more zeitgeist with his third dip into Vietnam.  Platoon was his story and Born on the 4th of July a story he desperately wanted to tell for years.  I can't fault audiences for mostly steering clear and thinking "What - Vietnam again?" because the results aren't as impressive and I don't get the feeling that this is something he needs to show.

 

Tiny Kyle CommentaryMaybe some of the problem with the movie is that its depictions of Vietnam during wartime no longer have the energy of a filmmaker revealing previously unspoken horrors. As gut-wrenching as certain early scenes are in portraying Le Ly Hayslip's experiences, we expect them, and that makes many of them play like ratcheted-up exploitative fiction rather than an acknowledgement of terrible injustices.

 

It's not enough that they win

 That’s fine, but is it any good?

Tiny Andrew CommentaryI endorse the performances with no hesitation.  One of the happiest surprises about this project is that I have long appreciated Tommy Lee Jones but I didn't know just how great he can be.  His descent into violent PTSD conveyed in sudden out-of-control bursts of paranoid ranting.  Hiep Thi Le is also strong and steady throughout the crimes inflicted on her but never descends into bad melodrama.

Outside of that, and my aesthetic appreciation of the film, I can't recommend it.  I feel Stone's presence and emotions more than Le Ly's and since that's sort of the point, this one is a reluctant pass.

Tiny Kyle CommentaryI don't think it's a terrible movie, but it's execution certainly lies somewhere along the terrible spectrum. Much of the voiceover is on badness-par with Charlie Sheen's hilarious existential whispers into the Manhattan skyline in Wall Street. It's unfortunate, because the actors do seem to be getting at the real suffering underlying these characters, and in a more patient, observant movie that could have been used to say something significant and genuine about the effects of war, which here Stone's cinematic ADD has stripped it of.

Next week: Natural Born Killers!

Stone with text

Posted by Andrew

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