Skip to main content

Different skin, same suffering.

Heaven & Earth
(1993)

(SPOILERS) All credit to Oliver Stone for feeling a responsibility to portray the Vietnamese perspective of the Vietnam War, after so many depictions of the physical and mental traumas of GIs (even when inflicting suffering on the enemy) but from the evidence of the all but forgotten Heaven & Earth, the final part of his Vietnam trilogy, he wasn’t the guy to do it.

This is one of the few Stone films (also vaguely on the to do list is World Trade Centre) I hadn’t got round to seeing, interest dampened by the critics’ resounding negativity. Stone defiantly claims it as his favourite film, which is exactly the kind of behaviour you’d expect from him, but also indicative of why he was probably temperamentally wrong to take charge of the adaptation of the adaptation of Le Ly Hayslip’s (with Jay Wurts) memoirs When Heaven and Earth Change Places and Child of War, Woman of Peace. The director also adapted the books and handpicked Hiep Thi Le for the lead role (sadly, she died a couple of years ago).

Her performance is perhaps adequate, but the writing is such that the picture is never about her, merely her reaction to external forces. For much of the Vietnam section, Stone hampers any chance of immersive story telling through narrated ellipses that stodgily detail everything from the country’s history to the politics of her village. It doesn’t help either that he sets up the account with a depiction of her village as if they’re fantasy Gelflings just waiting for the terrible Skeksis to invade, with added treacle from Kitaro’s unchecked score.

There’s power here, in particular the depiction of those caught in the middle of both sides’ ruthlessness, but for the most part, the narrative is too broken to take hold. Rejected by her family and her village and with a child born from her employer (she gets the blame, naturally), Le Ly naturally seizes the opportunity of rescue when Steve Butler (Tommy Lee Jones) arrives on the scene. It’s only here, with someone with whom Stone can identify, that Heaven & Earth finds something approaching its feet, even if the depiction of Le Ly’s wonderment at American excess and opulence seems more based on recreating the contents of a ‘60s supermarket than real engagement with her viewpoint (this was, after all, the same director who insisted the Marlborough packets were the right shade in Platoon).

There’s nothing particular revelatory about a brutal man who can’t escape the urge to brutalise, as their “safe” life in America quickly deteriorates, but there are strong scenes here, even if they’re mostly down to Jones (his Thanksgiving tirade at his family – “So don’t expect Le to do handstands over your goddam turkey”). Ironically, though, they only emphasise her lack of agency, and that Stone’s in his element as a passionate, angry filmmaker, and accordingly needs protagonists who reflect that. Without them, he’s stranded. So it is that the strongest scene in the picture has Steve pointing a gun at her before confessing his nightmarish Black Ops existence (“The more I killed, the more they gave me to kill”), culminating in an attempt to top himself.

How authentic Le Ly’s consultation with the Buddhist monk who recommends she reconciles with Steve or they will have to work things out in the next life is, I don’t know (it seems a bit “Stone” in its lack of finesse), but once her husband has committed suicide, and we segue to a successful older Le Ly’s return to Vietnam with her sons, the limits of Hiep’s abilities become more unflatteringly evident (and the hair department can’t really compensate). Again, though, the blame for this is fundamentally at Stone’s door. There’s only ever a sense of the character being robotically manoeuvred from point A to point B to point C by her writer-director.

There’s strong support from The Killing Fields’ Haing S. Ngor as Le Ly’s father and Joan Chen as her toothless mother, but finally seeing the film simply confirms why it went largely ignored. It’s surely not a coincidence that this is the point where Stone lost his footing as a filmmaker, after a five-year spell where he could seemingly do no wrong. It’s as if he’d run out of things to get angry about, and when he did (Natural Born Killers), the results seemed artificially steroidal. Perhaps if his Mai Lai massacre film had got off the ground we’d have seen something of the old Stone, but there’s also the sense from Heaven & Earth that he’d already said everything he had to say about Nam.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Popular posts from this blog

You were this amazing occidental samurai.

Ricochet (1991) (SPOILERS) You have to wonder at Denzel Washington’s agent at this point in the actor’s career. He’d recently won his first Oscar for Glory , yet followed it with less-than-glorious heart-transplant ghost comedy Heart Condition (Bob Hoskins’ racist cop receives Washington’s dead lawyer’s ticker; a recipe for hijinks!) Not long after, he dipped his tentative toe in the action arena with this Joel Silver production; Denzel has made his share of action fare since, of course, most of it serviceable if unremarkable, but none of it comes near to delivering the schlocky excesses of Ricochet , a movie at once ingenious and risible in its plot permutations, performances and production profligacy.

He’ll regret it to his dying day, if ever he lives that long.

The Quiet Man (1952) (SPOILERS) The John Wayne & John Ford film for those who don’t like John Wayne & John Ford films? The Quiet Man takes its cues from Ford’s earlier How Green Was My Valley in terms of, well less Anglophile and Hibernophile and Cambrophile nostalgia respectively for past times, climes and heritage, as Wayne’s pugilist returns to his family seat and stirs up a hot bed of emotions, not least with Maureen O’Hara’s red-headed hothead. The result is a very likeable movie, for all its inculcated Oirishness and studied eccentricity.

No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

The Matrix  (1999) (SPOILERS) Twenty years on, and the articles are on the defining nature of The Matrix are piling up, most of them touching on how its world has become a reality, or maybe always was one. At the time, its premise was engaging enough, but it was the sum total of the package that cast a spell – the bullet time, the fashions, the soundtrack, the comic book-as-live-action framing and styling – not to mention it being probably the first movie to embrace and reflect the burgeoning Internet ( Hackers doesn’t really count), and subsequently to really ride the crest of the DVD boom wave. And now? Now it’s still really, really good.

Well, something’s broke on your daddy’s spaceship.

Apollo 13 (1995) (SPOILERS) The NASA propaganda movie to end all NASA propaganda movies. Their original conception of the perilous Apollo 13 mission deserves due credit in itself; what better way to bolster waning interest in slightly naff perambulations around a TV studio than to manufacture a crisis event, one emphasising the absurd fragility of the alleged non-terrestrial excursions and the indomitable force that is “science” in achieving them? Apollo 13 the lunar mission was tailor made for Apollo 13 the movie version – make believe the make-believe – and who could have been better to lead this fantasy ride than Guantanamo Hanks at his all-American popularity peak?

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989) (SPOILERS) There’s Jaws , there’s Star Wars , and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws ’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy , to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “ more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie ”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “ mainly boring ”. Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the

You think a monkey knows he’s sitting on top of a rocket that might explode?

The Right Stuff (1983) (SPOILERS) While it certainly more than fulfils the function of a NASA-propaganda picture – as in, it affirms the legitimacy of their activities – The Right Stuff escapes the designation of rote testament reserved for Ron Howard’s later Apollo 13 . Partly because it has such a distinctive personality and attitude. Partly too because of the way it has found its through line, which isn’t so much the “wow” of the Space Race and those picked to be a part of it as it is the personification of that titular quality in someone who wasn’t even in the Mercury programme: Chuck Yaeger (Sam Shephard). I was captivated by The Right Stuff when I first saw it, and even now, with the benefit of knowing-NASA-better – not that the movie is exactly extolling its virtues from the rooftops anyway – I consider it something of a masterpiece, an interrogation of legends that both builds them and tears them down. The latter aspect doubtless not NASA approved.

Drank the red. Good for you.

Morbius (2022) (SPOILERS) Generic isn’t necessarily a slur. Not if, by implication, it’s suggestive of the kind of movie made twenty years ago, when the alternative is the kind of super-woke content Disney currently prioritises. Unfortunately, after a reasonable first hour, Morbius descends so resignedly into such unmoderated formula that you’re left with a too-clear image of Sony’s Spider-Verse when it lacks a larger-than-life performer (Tom Hardy, for example) at the centre of any given vehicle.

He doesn’t want to lead you. He just wants you to follow.

Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore (2022) (SPOILERS) The general failing of the prequel concept is a fairly self-evident one; it’s spurred by the desire to cash in, rather than to tell a story. This is why so few prequels, in any form, are worth the viewer/reader/listener’s time, in and of themselves. At best, they tend to be something of a well-rehearsed fait accompli. In the movie medium, even when there is material that withstands closer inspection (the Star Wars prequels; The Hobbit , if you like), the execution ends up botched. With Fantastic Beasts , there was never a whiff of such lofty purpose, and each subsequent sequel to the first prequel has succeeded only in drawing attention to its prosaic function: keeping franchise flag flying, even at half-mast. Hence Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore , belatedly arriving after twice the envisaged gap between instalments and course-correcting none of the problems present in The Crimes of Grindelwald .

So, you’re telling me that NASA is going to kill the President of the United States with an earthquake?

Conspiracy Theory (1997) (SPOILERS) Mel Gibson’s official rehabilitation occurred with the announcement of 2016’s Oscar nominations, when Hacksaw Ridge garnered six nods, including Mel as director. Obviously, many refuse to be persuaded that there’s any legitimate atonement for the things someone says. They probably weren’t even convinced by Mel’s appearance in Daddy’s Home 2 , an act of abject obeisance if ever there was one. In other circles, though, Gibbo, or Mad Mel, is venerated as a saviour unsullied by the depraved Hollywood machine, one of the brave few who would not allow them to take his freedom. Or at least, his values. Of course, that’s frequently based on alleged comments he made, ones it’s highly likely he didn’t. But doesn’t that rather appeal to the premise of his 23-year-old star vehicle Conspiracy Theory , in which “ A good conspiracy theory is an unproveable one ”?

You’d be surprised how many intersectional planes of untethered consciousness exist.

Moon Knight (2022) (SPOILERS) Now, this is an interesting one. Not because it’s very good – Phase IV MCU? Hah! – but because it presents its angle on the “superhero” ethos in an almost entirely unexpurgated, unsoftened way. Here is a character explicitly formed through the procedures utilised by trauma-based mind control, who has developed alters – of which he has been, and some of which he remains, unaware – and undergone training/employment in the military and private mercenary sectors (common for MKUltra candidates, per Dave McGowan’s Programmed to Kill ). And then, he’s possessed by what he believes to be a god in order to carry out acts of extreme violence. So just the sort of thing that’s good, family, DisneyPlus+ viewing.