Sandwiched between Stone's two craziest and most manic films lay one of the auteur's more visually poetic and interesting films; Heaven and Earth isn't something so different that it stands out – although it's nice to see Stone stretch himself a bit here by having the film being told through the eyes of a female protagonist – and it falls too often into ridiculous melodrama to be emotionally memorable. But if you can get past some of the film's major flaws (the film, based on two books by the film's protagonist Le Ly Hayslip, feels incomplete as it really doesn't follow through with her story) you'll see a gem of a movie that lingers on moments of poetic filmmaking and voiceover narration that puts the viewer in a state of reverie; a shocking tonal shift from a director who would descend into self-parody with his ADD aesthetic a mere two films after making this one.
The film, as mentioned above, is based on two books about a young Vietnamese woman's named Le Ly (Hiep Thi Le) journey from a young girl's whose village was destroyed to a teenager who is raped and threatened and tortured by Viet Cong radicals to a woman who moves with her family – after being forced off of their land – to Saigon where she becomes a hustler until she meets an American soldirer named Steve (Tommy Lee Jones), marries him, and moves with him to California to start a new life that doesn't necessarily have the promise (at least the promise she hoped while being married to him, as she would go on to make a name for herself) she imagined it having.
Heaven and Earth is the third film in Stone's Vietnam "trilogy" which also included films about personal recollections of the Vietnam war (his own, first-hand account in Platoon, and Ron Kovic's story in Born on the Fourth of July) and how they affect those who must return from a war zone. However, where Platoon primarily focused on the jungles of Vietnam, and Born on the Fourth of July mostly focused on Ron's return to his "home", Heaven and Earth is a balance of the two settings. The film opens with some beautiful on-location imagery as Le Ly's voice guides through the Buddhist significance of Heaven and Earth. Immediately I was struck by how different this seemed than previous Stone films. The opening imagery evoked thoughts of Terence Malick's The Thin Red Line and The New World with its mix of beautiful natural photography and voiceover. It's clear from the onset that Stone is interested in making this a film unlike his previous endeavors.
Stone put a lot of heart into the production of Heaven and Earth, and was publically disappointed when the film wasn't seen as the success that Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July were; it's why he would go on to read Quentin Tarantino's script for Natural Born Killers – a film that promised a more simplistic, stress-free shoot. However, the labor of Stone's love for the material is evident in every frame of the film's scenes in Vietnam and Saigon showcasing some of the best cinematography Robert Richardson (longtime Stone collaborator) has done. I'm thinking particularly of scenes where a hat wafts through the reeds as a helicopter hovers over Le Ly (I especially liked the camera distortion used during this moment as the water washes over the lens) and instead of getting antsy with his editing, Stone stays on the images long enough for the viewer to allow the image – accompanied by Le Ly's poetic narration – to sink in and really contemplate the plight of Le Ly.
However, once Le Ly leaves Saigon for California the film turns more into a rather banal melodrama where we find out what Steve really did in the military and how that causes a giant rift between the two. The relationship turns abusive, and the film, which should have focused on Le Ly's grasping of the American Dream (which is what one of her books is heavily about) from essentially nothing, becomes nothing more than a Lifetime movie. It's too bad, too, because the performances are a lot better than what Stone gives them to do, and even Stone's crew juxtaposes nicely the California aesthetic (harsh key lighting like the kind found in all of Scorsese's 90's movies, and in Stone's own JFK, Natural Born Killers, and Nixon) with the Saigon/Vietnam aesthetic (more of a dream-like look).
The theme of living between the two worlds, heaven and earth, and living between the two times, the past and the present is executed well enough. And like Ron Kovic coming home and experiencing a different version of home than when he left, so too does Le Ly come to America and experience an alien world: a world of garish homes, large refrigerators, and Ralph's supermarkets. There's a wonderful scene that takes place at thanksgiving dinner that shows the disconnect between those that were in the war and those who stayed at home and only heard about it through the filtered news reports. At the dinner Steve's sister is hammering the point home that Le Ly should be thankful for Steve and everything she now has (specifically lots of food; and in a great bird's eye view, Richardson shows the massive table and all of the food they are about to eat) now that she's with him and in America (i.e. the sacrifices made to bring her here). Steve explains to his overbearing sister (and really this is the only good scene Jones has in the film aside from an amazingly powerful moment where Steve is teetering on the edge of sanity, and listens to Le Ly's pleas for him to come back home…Stone simply keeps the camera affixed to Jones' face and the acting he does with his always stoic face is just phenomenal) that they are more than aware of the blessings in front of them, and they didn't know what sacrifice was, proceeding to tell them about the horrors of pillaging villages and killing innocent children. It's a scene filled with anger and sadness (reminding me a lot of the tone of Born on the Fourth of July) as Le Ly simply looks on, partly horrified at seeing this side of a man who had been nothing but serene and in control around her, and partly in awe of the fact that Steve, whilst being a monster, does the honorable thing and defends her. It's one of the best scenes of the film that really showcases the talents of the actors, it's just too bad that Stone's film devolves into such heavy melodrama that the actors are unable to really rise above the California material.
Heaven and Earth isn't one of those gems that is so hidden that is has become a kind of forgotten masterpiece; however, it is one of those gems that finds itself nudged between a filmmakers two most ambitious projects, and because of that has gotten lost in the shuffle. It's a little too long, but damn are those opening moments and on-location imagery impressive. On those terms alone the film deserves a new audience, but the film also deserves to be rediscovered because of its place in Stone's oeuvre: here's a film that feels out of place with the type of filmmaker Stone was throughout the 90's; it's a far more elegiac film than anything the controversial director had made, and it definitely has more deliberate, poetic undercurrent running through the first hour of the film. It's such a noticeable difference from a director who was always so angry and specialized in showing claustrophobic and chaotic worlds and point of views; with Heaven and Earth, though, he wisely slows things down and delivers a film that – even if it is wholly uneven – deserves to be rediscovered whether or not you're a fan of Stone.
Next Stone famously bastardizes a Quentin Tarantino script (although to Stone's credit, successfully makes into something that is his own) to create a film that intended to be nothing more than a straight action movie, but thanks to O.J. became Stone's most ambitious, batshit insane project; and it all comes together to create what is, for lack of a better expression, a freaking masterpiece.