An unacceptable artist, not least because he is intellectually shallow, Oliver Stone has what is at bottom a Buddhist movie in the 1993 Heaven and Earth. Stone is fond of Buddhist thought here, but also he can be hard on the people of Buddhist Vietnam. Both the South Vietnamese and the Vietcong during the Indochinese war are barbarous; they rape and torture the film’s chief figure, Le Ly. Vietnamese civilians hardly prove angelic either. Stone is equally hard of course on Americans because of our intervention in that Far East conflict of the Sixties and early Seventies and our vulgar materialism.
Based on Le Ly Hayslip’s memoir, When Heaven and Earth Changed Places, about her life in Vietnam and then in the United States, the film follows the story of a Buddhist peasant girl, Le Ly, who marries an American serviceman. Their marriage is an unhappy one, with, uniquely, the Marines partly to blame because of how they tampered with the serviceman’s mind in Vietnam. Hiep Thi Le plays Le Ly superbly, with vulnerability, anger and youthful charm. Tommy Lee Jones is true and resounding as her husband. Stylistically, though, the film is irritatingly fancy and melodramatic. Stone does better with actors than with cinematic technique. There are some scenes that work very well, even so, such as the one where a military helicopter lands in, and causes a terrific spray of water over, a rice paddy where Le Ly is working. Or the one in which Jones, not yet married to Le Ly, chases the man-resisting girl down a crowded Vietnam street in a rickshaw. . . Heaven and Earth is mediocre, but if you can tolerate the occasional Buddhist philosophy, you might find worth your time its several real assets.