FF59 - Heaven & Earth

Intro by Rob Schulte

There aren't very many film directors whose work is as inextricably associated with a specific place as Oliver Stone is with Vietnam. And yet: Every time we return there with him we are given another of the myriad stories he is able to conjure out of the rice and blood of this country. Heaven & Earth was billed as the third in the Oliver Stone Vietnam trilogy after Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July. And yet: It is so different from the first two that it feels as much like an Oliver Stone Vietnam movie as Rocky V feels like a Rocky movie. Adam wrote that.

In 1991 Stone was positively excoriated for JFK, so he returned to the womb that birthed his creative vision for one final go-around. But can we trust him? In literature we learn of the unreliable narrator, and you have to admit post-JFK and especially now Stone resembles that remark, but here we get a sensitive version of stone, carefully telling the story of our main character Le Ly Hayslip. And this is crucial: It's not Stone's story to tell this time, it is hers! You want to talk about being in the shit? Le Ly was in the shit! Her village was occupied at different times between the NVA, Viet Cong and American forces, her brothers thrown out of helicopters or gone missing. She was raped next to an open grave meant for her.

We don't trust this white savior and Steve Butler played by Tommy Lee Jones, but he wears her and us down. The America he brings her to is a carnival mirror from the world she left behind. Where once there was verdant rice paddies, there is now shag carpet. Where before every grain of rice was considered holy, there is now an instinct disposal for leftovers, a husband with a purpose replaced with a broken angry man. It is as shocking and devastating as any Vietnam story we have ever seen on film. It is made even more miraculous that the actor playing Le Ly (Hiep Thi Le) was a woman responding to an open college casting call.

I think that is one of the things that works so well in the film. Her innocence as a newly minted professional actor works in her favor. Her insistence on making it work feels genuine, and her devastation when it doesn't feels earned. Looming over it all is Stone, who thank God takes a back seat to these performances and lets the camera linger on scenes both tranquil and suspenseful. It is a film no-one thought Stone could make but we are glad he did. We will get the kids back to normal in no time as the hosts discuss the final chapter in Oliver Stone's Vietnam trilogy with this 1993 film Heaven & Earth.

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