The impulse is honorable. After considering the Vietnam War from vantage points both national (Platoon) and personal (Born on the Fourth of July), writer-director Oliver Stone—a veteran himself—concluded his trilogy with Heaven & Earth, based on the writings of Le Ly Hayslip. Hers is an amazing story, one that travels from a small rural village in Vietnam to the streets of Saigon to the suburbs of San Diego, yet despite every intention the movie can’t quite shake its American male point of view.
It’s clear from the start that Stone intends to depict a different Vietnam. Rather than the insufferable jungles of Platoon or the dry dunes of Born, Heaven & Earth opens in the verdant, idyllic valley of Le Ly’s youth. With its peaceful ponds, frolicking children, and fertile rice fields, the place is almost too idyllic—a heaven on earth, despoiled by war.
To evoke this tragic transition, Stone and cinematographer Robert Richardson return to two elegant images. One is the sight of Le Ly’s straw hat being blown across a field as a military helicopter creates a forceful wind nearby. The other is a shot of a flame thrower emitting an orange burst across a blue sky, like smoky dragon’s breath interrupting a clear day.
There is another early detail, however, that sets the tone for the point-of-view troubles that will plague the film. In spite of the care taken to authentically honor the beauty of this village, Heaven & Earth denies the Vietnamese their language. Rather than employ subtitles, the vast majority of the dialogue here is delivered in broken English, a decision that Americanizes Le Ly’s story before it really begins.
Heaven & Earth is concerned, first and foremost, with Le Ly’s virtue, not her whole being.
Once the movie does tell her tale, it frames the narrative in curious terms. Largely, Le Ly’s odyssey is given a sexual context—her rape by Viet Cong in her village, which is depicted as a sexual act as much as a violent one; her affair with her employer in Saigon, resulting in the birth of an illegitimate son; her romance with an American soldier (Tommy Lee Jones), whom she eventually marries and follows to the States. Aside from these major points of emphasis, there are other random scenes—including a drawn-out one in which a different soldier tries to convince her to prostitute herself—that make it feel as if Heaven & Earth is concerned, first and foremost, with Le Ly’s virtue, not her whole being.
Now, as far as I know, this theme was the focus of Le Ly’s two books; certainly negotiating one’s sexuality was a major challenge for a single Vietnamese woman in Saigon at the time. But in Heaven & Earth, Le Ly’s identity as a sexual being takes precedence over the many other aspects of her life: her forced stint as a Viet Cong soldier; her struggles as a single mother; her loneliness as a military wife; her ambition as an American businesswoman. Surely more time could have been spent in each of these areas, illuminating another aspect of her experience?
To be fair, the American male perspective might have been mitigated by a more forceful lead performance. If Stone is too willing to portray Le Ly as a beautifully resilient victim, Hiep Thi Le, in her first acting performance of any kind, doesn’t quite have the chops (or the confidence) to offer more than that. Despite other characters describing Le Ly as headstrong and spoiled, Hiep Thi Le plays her as passive, a witness of historic events but not much of a participant in them. What’s more, the perfunctory voiceover narration mostly relays tactical information and rarely employs the sort of poetry that would help us get inside Le Ly’s head.
By the end of Heaven & Earth—and especially after a significant detour that shifts the attention to Jones’ tortured soldier—I felt as if I had been in Stone’s head all along. Kudos to the filmmaker for committing millions of dollars and a host of creative talent to telling a different side of the Vietnam War. It’s a pity there isn’t a stronger film to show for it.