Laser Disc Review

Heaven and Earth B+, A-

US/1993/Color/Widescreen 2.35:1/Stereo Surround/140 minutes/Directed by Oliver Stone/Starring Hiep Thi Li, Tommy Lee Jones/Warner/46 Chaps/2 discs/CLV/$39.98

The early scenes of Heaven and Earth are filmed with a dream-like, almost bucolic style. With the invasion of the Vietnamese village by various troops, the soft images turn to garish nightmares. The horror is totally devastating and there is no bad dream to be banished by the morning sun. The abject plight of the Vietnamese peasant is hauntingly depicted by director Oliver Stone. Stone has a strong cinematic voice and uses it freely to make his arguments.

I don't think one can deny that this story of the Vietnam War from the peasant’s point of view is a well made film. The fact is, it is often difficult to watch. Director Stone does not let the viewer off the hook easily. How can the American advisors stand by and watch the South Vietnamese soldiers torture the woman? How can the American audience watch the atrocities without a sense of revulsion and complicity. No, Stone does not let the audience sit comfortably. You can complain that the director loads the dice to come up with any number he wants, but that is the privilege of the storyteller. The question is whether it is done convincingly and consistently and the answer is that Stone is highly skilled. In Heaven and Earth the peasant is victimized from every direction. It’s Stone’s indictment of everyone. There are no heroes, only the Vietnamese victims.

I have the sense that Stone and director of photography Robert Richardson are an amazing team. Whatever Stone wants, Richardson delivers, and further, embellishes the vision. A burst of fire from a tank appears across the landscape like the fiery breath of a dragon.

The major action of the film takes place in Vietnam tracing the epic odyssey of young Le Ly Hayslip. Her salvation is delivered in the form of Army Sergeant Steve Butler, who embraces Le, marries her, has children with her and in the turmoil and evacuation of the South, manages to bring them all to America.

Le’s introduction to America is a total change of tone for the film, almost as if Stone jumped ahead to the style of Natural Born Killers. The short passages, while effective on their own, strike a discordant note in the composition of the film’s whole. Though this final film in Stone’s Vietnam trilogy is very moving, Heaven and Earth falls short in its final third which focuses on the American experience. The point of view is confused and even though this may be an accurate statement of Stone’s own feelings, it lacks the clarity and force of his earlier visions. When Le visits Vietnam after the Americanization, the magic has been diluted. Even Joan Chen, who earlier had done a fine job as Le’s mother, seems to strike a false note.

This is a very auspicious debut for Hiep Thi Li who does a terrific job in finding a core to Le. She even manages to age very well. Tommy Lee Jones does an interesting job as Steve Butler, making it difficult to watch his deterioration in the States. Haing Ngor is a strong presence as Le’s father.

You won’t be disappointed in the treatment for this laser disc. Everything is first class. The image is consistently sharp and the colors evenly saturated. The various lighting conditions are well balanced. The surround sound is very engaging. Though Heaven and Earth may be flawed, it is still an enormously rewarding film.