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Standing at the Gates of Heaven

Oliver Stone is knock-knock-knockin', but he just can't get inside his latest Vietnam epic

Watching Heaven and Earth, I was reminded of Pauline Kael's quip upon her retirement: "At least I won't have to see any more Oliver Stone movies," or words to that effect. At the time I thought the grande dame was being a little hard on Stone; he seems more of a hit-and-miss proposition than a must to avoid. For (roughly) every overheated melodrama such as Wall Street, he has produced a film of raw emotional power, like Salvador, JFK or even The Doors. JFK was, of course, his great success. The sheer kinetic energy of the film showed that, for good or ill, Oliver Stone gave it everything he had.

That's why Heaven and Earth is so disappointing, and why I was thinking of Kael's parting shot as I watched it. I don't think Stone had much to say about the plight of a young Vietnamese woman trapped by competing forces, and by history itself, during the French and U.S. wars in Vietnam. He certainly didn't find his way to the center of her story. Stone remains on the outside looking in -- and so do we.

In its opening shots, though, the film is so pictorially beautiful that I thought the landscape might carry the day. Stone's camera looks down on a Vietnamese village surrounded by rice fields and a rather mystical-looking series of hills. Stone wants us to feel that the Vietnamese countryside has existed in pure timelessness, outside history, until the French arrive. And this misty-blue field does put us in never-never land -- but then Stone and his collaborators ruin the effect with overkill.

A narrator's voiceover breaks in, for the first of many times, to explain exactly how we're supposed to feel about the scene, and why. A couple of words on the village's timelessness might have been evocative, but the narrator blathers on, accompanied by the film's most maddening defect: swirling orchestral strings that don't know when to stop. The soundtrack is pitched to the same level of swirl no matter what's happening onscreen.

Once he's established that Le Ly (Hiep Thi Le) was indeed born in heaven, Stone quickly moves on to earth -- to hell, that is. The French come through and destroy the village. The villagers rebuild, then the Americans come, then the Viet Cong, and between them they put Le Ly and her family (headed by Papa, played by Oscar-winner Haing S. Ngor of The Killing Fields) through much grief. Le Ly's two brothers join the guerillas, and Le Ly herself works as a sympathizer. This gets her in trouble with the South Vietnamese army, and the government takes her prisoner and tortures her. When her mother bribes Le Ly's way out, the Viet Cong become suspicious: Why did the government give her special treatment?

With both sides ready to do her in, Le Ly moves to Saigon and suffers a series of troubles. A country girl lost in the big, corrupt city, she gets pregnant and is reduced to selling black-market items to GIs. She can scarcely manage to resist selling herself.

Then she meets a good GI, a marine jungle warrior named Steve Butler (Tommy Lee Jones). He has nightmares about night recons, and in his sleep he seems on the verge of killing her -- but once he's awake, he's desperately happy to have her in his life.

There is plenty of drama in this material, but because Stone stands so far outside his story, little of it carries weight. He hasn't deeply imagined these characters, who speak in a series of ear-jarring cliches. He would have been well-advised to get a Vietnamese writer to help with the dialogue.

Once Butler and his Vietnamese bride get to America, the movie comes briefly to life. The images of tiny Le Ly being greeted and nearly smothered by her heavyweight sister-in-law give the film its first edge -- this, after all its horrors. And the following moments -- as Le Ly is awestruck in a California supermarket, and her sister-in-law opens a freezer the size of Le Ly's family hut, revealing a universe of frozen foods -- are very funny. Oh, I thought. Now the movie is finally starting. It's a comedy.

But that doesn't last long. The film descends once again into bathos. Stone begins rushing through his material so doggedly that we almost lose contact with the basic plot elements. We're told that Butler suffers this problem and that problem, but again, the voiceover is being asked to do the movie's main storytelling, and it falls flat.

Butler is a potentially interesting character, even though he is yet another haunted Vietnam vet. You can tell that he is drawn from life, and you can see potential in the way he's trapped between the crimes he committed in Vietnam and the dead-end life he returns to in California. But Stone narrates it away, and finally even the wonderful Jones can't flesh out the shards of his character.

The movie is curiously unfelt throughout, as if Stone simply can't get too worked up about Vietnam anymore. In fact, it plays more as his response to his feminist critics than anything else. He was apparently determined to do a woman's story, whether or not he had anything to say.

 
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