Uncomfortably Nam

Everyone has heard that shopworn saying, "The third time's a charm." But what if you're successful the first two times you try something? Does that mean you'll blow it the third time around?

If your name is Oliver Stone and you've carted away Best Director Oscars for Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July, the answer is, unfortunately, yes. Stone returns to Vietnam yet again with Heaven and Earth, but his latest effort pales in comparison to the earlier two. There are a few powerful moments -- Stone is, love him or hate him, a gifted filmmaker -- but they wash up on the shores of mediocrity, borne by wave after wave of unfocused narrative, unchecked proselytizing, and unrepentant political correctness.

Stone crafted his screenplay from the real-life memoirs of Le Ly Hayslip, a Vietnamese woman who survived both the French and U.S. occupations of her country -- only to encounter her greatest challenge adapting to Western life after fleeing her homeland with her American fiance and settling into suburbia. She survives the Viet Cong, but can she survive a trip to the supermarket?

The heavy-handed director envisioned his screen treatment of Hayslip's odyssey as a Vietnamese Gone With the Wind, but it comes off as more like Empire of the Sun. Like Spielberg, who directed that flawed World War II movie, Stone is never one to go for subtle understatement when browbeating will do. Spielberg's recent war film, Schindler's List, is superior in every way to Heaven and Earth, but the two films share the same defect A their directors' propensity to get caught up in the inherent emotionalism of their charged subject matter. Stone's sadistic G.I.'s are almost interchangeable with Spielberg's evil Nazis. Spielberg, however, compensates with big-time production values, a moral stance that is as black and white as the film stock he shot the picture with, and a larger-than-life protagonist everyone can relate to. Schindler gets to dance and drink and carouse and still play hero. Hayslip gets raped by the Viet Cong, tortured by the South Vietnamese army, impregnated and abandoned by a married Vietnamese businessman, and beaten by her psychologically devastated U.S. Marine husband. Who would Americans rather trade places with? It should come as no surprise that U.S. audiences are ponying up for Schindler.

Stone contrives scene after scene to fit his agenda. It starts with the swelling music of the film's opening frames and continues with the smiling U.S. military advisers who stand idly by while South Vietnamese soldiers lash suspected V.C. collaborator Le Ly to a pole, coat her bare legs and feet with honey (to attract a swarm of fire ants), and drop a snake down her cleavage. The U.S.'s involvement was wrong, Stone insists, time and time again. Born on the Fourth of July worked because Stone took audiences through all the stages: rah-rah patriotic, wounded, disillusioned, emotionally scarred. No matter how you felt about Vietnam, it was hard to remain unmoved by the agonizing tale of the boy next door who lost his legs and idealism to a senseless war. While Stone's core political stance remains unshaken in Heaven and Earth, the director's devotion to dogma gets the better of him and overpowers the simple humanity of his characters' heart-rending narrative. The title becomes appropriate in an unintended fashion; between heaven and earth there is only purgatory, and that's where this film resides.


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