Director/Writer: Oliver Stone (based on the book When Heaven and Earth Changed Places by Lely Haislip)
Cast: Tommy Lee Jones, Hiep Thi Le
I'll start this review by saying that during the next couple of weeks Im gonna be reviewing some Oliver Stone films; the reason being that I just bought an Oliver Stone boxed set which includes a lot of movies from Stones repertoire that I had not seen yet. Heaven and Earth was one of them. Im not a big fan of war movies, but when they are good they are good. My favorite thing about war movies is that they show that completely dark side of human nature, it presents us with the question: once you've committed horrible acts of mayhem during war, once you've actually killed people for your government, can you go back to being a normal person? Can you fit right back into society all fine and dandy, no harm no foul? A lot of films have explored this subject matter, for example: First Blood (1982), The Deer Hunter (1978) and The Hunted (2003) which by the way, same as Heaven and Earth, also stars Tommy Lee Jones. Recent examples include Brothers (2009) and Kathryn Bigelow's Oscar winning film The Hurt Locker (2009) an excellent war film showing how once a man goes through the horrors of war, psychologically, you are scarred for life. After surviving war with their lives intact, can these men go back to going to the supermarket and mowing their lawns as if all that madness had not happened? On Oliver Stone's Heaven and Earth, we see these themes explored through Tommy Lee Jones character, Steve Butler, a man who's been torn apart by war, and is now trying to find some happiness, love, peace. This war torn soldier decides love is all he needs, so he decides to marry a young Vietnamese girl.
Heaven and Earth is the third film in what is known as "Oliver Stone's Vietnam Trilogy". The three films included on this trilogy are Platoon (1986) and Born on the Fourth of July (1989) and the movie were discussing on this review, Heaven and Earth. As opposed to Platoon, this movie is less about the war itself and more about how the war affects the lives of the people whose lives it is ravaging. In this particular story we meet Le Ly a little Vietnamese girl who grows up in this beautiful paradise where families grow rice in the fields and the landscape looks like something out of J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth. An island paradise. Until it is invaded by American forces that is! Then it is filled with death, a nation in rebellion, rape and mass murders! I love how Oliver Stone points these historical events out, how theAmericans invaded that land with their tanks and their helicopters. That's how it went down, and it is represented on this film, pointing a finger, as Oliver Stone films usually do, to an evil in society. Usually, in Oliver Stone films, the roots of evil come from the American way of government and from the effects of it, i.e. The Revolution.
The Man, the myth, Oliver Stone
But this is not a film that hates America, it simply hates the way its government acts during certain moments in history. Like the Vietnam War for example. Lots of evil came out of that war, lots of people suffered. Many lives destroyed. One of the lives that was destroyed was LeLy Haislip, the author of the two memoirs on which this film is based on. All that real life hardship and suffering are on Lely Haislips two memoirs, "When Heaven and Earth Changed Places" and "Child of War, Woman of Peace" Stories in both books should bring any one who reads them to tears. These Vietnamese girls really went through hell surviving in the midst of the war between the Americans and the Vietcong. But on the other hand, the film presents America as the savior of Le Ly. She moves to America, becomes rich. And changes from a tramp begging on the streets into a successful business woman. So America saved the life of her and her children at the same time. I enjoyed that political eveness the film has; Heaven and Earth doesn't just stick to one version of the story, it brings us both sides of the tale. Yes the American soldiers killed many people, but so did the Vietcong.
This film is very similar to Oliver Stone's Salvador (which I will be reviewing soon), that film stars James Woods as a photojournalist who is living in Salvador, documenting through his pictures how that countries government stepped on its people. On that story, the same thing happens. An American falls in love with the Native and in an act born purely out of a need for redemption, tries to marry the girl and save her from the hell that is erupting in her country. He also takes the womans children as his own, and his plan is also to take her to America. So its structured very similarly to Salvador, an early Oliver Stone film which I urge you to check out if you like films with a rebellious streak to them that portrays lives being directly affected by war, but also focuses on how during these horrible conditions true love and humanity can emerge and outshine the darkness.
At its core, this is a film about true love and understanding over coming it all. Even the darkest horrors in our lives. Out there in filmland theres a term called "tearjerker". This term is used to refer to films that have a story so sad, so crushing that you'll probably end up crying as you see it. Some fail horribly, but some work like magic. Don't deny it, you all know it, some films have made a tear or two come out from your eye sockets. So anyways, for me Heaven and Earth was one of these movies! The story is so epic, you feel like you get to know these characters and when things happen to them, it really breaks you up! Plus, the performances feel so genuine, the dialog so true, that it makes the film that much more believable. Since the film is based on two memoirs, you also know as you watch the film, that many of the situations depicted on it truly did happen like that, so it makes you even sadder. But strangely enough, there are some truly happy moments as well. You will go through a rollercoaster of emotions with this movie. There is some truly beautiful imagery. Parts of the film were shot in Vietnam and Thailand; the end result is a the portrayal of a beautiful looking Vietnam; a paradise. I don't think Id be wrong to say that this film is one of Oliver Stone's most beautiful looking movies. The landscapes the vistas are something to behold.
My advice with this movie is, see it, stick with it to the very end and you'll end up feeling like you saw a truly satisfying movie. Its obvious Stone took extra special care in making this movie beautiful and moving, and emotional, this was after all a film that he made expressly for his mother. When the film ends we see the words "To My Mother Jaqueline Stone" before the credits role. So in a way, this is Oliver Stones love letter to his mom. It has a big "I love you Mom" written all over some of its images. A very moving and emotional film that shows us a whole life, from suffering, to survival, to redemption, to total bliss and happiness. Its a trip, one of Oliver Stone's most epic, emotional films. If I had to say that the film had a weekness, it would be that since the story covers so much, during its first half, the film seems to go in a big rush, events happening super fast. But its best moments come when characters slow it down and try to connect as human beings. But thats not really a big deal, in my book this is a five star film every step of the way, not to be missed.
Rating: 5 out of 5