Heaven & Earth is Oliver Stone’s third Vietnam movie. He started his trilogy with the intense infantry combat movie Platoon (1986), followed by the harrowing tale of one soldier’s ordeal Born on the Fourth of July (1989) and then the third part, told from the point of view of a Vietnamese village girl Heaven & Earth (1993). It’s anti-climatic to start a review with a verdict, so let’s just say, Heaven & Earth is the weakest of the three. And the most sentimental.
The movie is based on the true story of Le Ly. It starts in the 1950s, with Le Ly as a little girl of five, living with her family in a beautiful village in Northern Vietnam. In 1953 the village is burnt down by the French. Her father teaches Le Ly that the most important thing is freedom and it’s not surprising that she and her brothers will later actively help the Vietcong. While the younger brother is executed and the older one hidden somewhere, Le Ly is captured and tortured by the Americans first and later raped by the Vietcong.
Le Ly (Hiep Thi Le) leaves her village and tries to make a living in Saigon. She and her mother work for a rich Vietnamese family until Le Ly has an affair with the husband and gets pregnant. They are chased away. Her mother returns to the village, while Le Ly stays in another city, Danang. Most girls from the villages end up as prostitutes but she sells cigarettes and other things, and fights off the advances of the American soldiers.
When her son is about five, she meets an American soldier (Tommy Lee Jones) who falls in love with her. They live together for a while and finally get married. Butler wants to take her back to America and some time later, after their first child is born, they leave for the US. Just in time to escape the chaos that breaks out in Vietnam after the war is over.
The US are a culture shock for Le Ly. But also a pleasant surprise. The way she sees it, this is the land of plenty. There is so much food and abundance everywhere. Everything could be great if her husband didn’t show signs of alcoholism and other issues. Le Ly who was a very independent woman in Vietnam, wants to open a business of her own but her husband is opposed to that. They fight more and more, the marriage is doomed.
In the final part we see Le Ly and her children return to Vietnam. She will forever be a part of both worlds, Vietnam and the US, Heaven and Earth.
I have seen a lot of negative reviews of this movie and while I was watching the first hour or so I didn’t understand why. The initial parts are not only beautifully filmed, they tell an intense and interesting story and the choice to focus on a girl from Northern Vietnam, to illustrate some of the complexities, wasn’t a bad choice. Unfortunately from the moment she meets Butler, the story starts to drift in a lot of different directions and from the story of a girl, exemplary for one nation’s suffering, it turns into the story of one woman and her failed marriage. It just didn’t work for me anymore, was too sentimental and lost its strength.
Heaven and Earth is cinematographically compelling and the first part is well above average. Then, unfortunately, it tumbles down and I don’t think it works well as a third part in Stone’s trilogy. It may however work as the story of one woman who may not have been able to free her country but herself.