Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: Heaven & Earth: Special Edition (1993)
Studio Line: Warner Bros. - From Vietnam to America, one woman's journey from hope, to love, to discovery.

From three-time Academy Award-winning filmmaker Oliver Stone -- whose Platoon took you to the Vietnam battlefront and whose Born On The Fourth Of July took you to the American homefront -- comes an acclaimed movie about the fight to survive on both fronts. Tommy Lee Jones and Joan Chen "turn in award-caliber performances" (Peter Travers, Rolling Stone) in the powerful story of a man who fought, a woman who endured…and a love caught up in the explosive wartime upheaval of a land and a people caught between Heaven And Earth.

Director: Oliver Stone
Cast: Hiep Thi Le, Tommy Lee Jones, Joan Chen, Haing Ngor
DVD: Widescreen 2.35:1/16x9; audio English DD 5.1, French Dolby Surround; subtitles English, Spanish, French, Portuguese; closed-captioned; single sided - dual layered; 46 chapters; rated R; 140 min.; $24.98; street date 1/16/01.
Supplements: Feature-Length Audio Commentary by Writer/Director Oliver Stone; Deleted Scenes; Includes Amazing Alternate 30 Minute Opening With Score From Kitaro; Theatrical Trailer.
Purchase: DVD | The Oliver Stone Collection

Picture/Sound/Extras: A-/A-/B

To date, Oliver Stone has made three movies that related to the war in Vietnam. First was his most famous film, 1986’s Platoon. That Oscar-winner set up Stone as a force in movies and gave him his first Academy Award for directing. Stone earned his second Best Director Oscar for 1989’s Born on the Fourth of July. That movie lost to Driving Miss Daisy for Best Picture, however and remains in the back seat when compared to Platoon.

In 1993, Stone made the third film in this series, the largely-ignored Heaven and Earth. This final Vietnam epic was the only one that didn’t adopt an American point of view. Platoon concerned itself wholly with battle and used American protagonists (and antagonists, for that matter), whereas Born was more about the continued effects experienced by Vietnam veterans after the battles ended.

H&E alters this progression in two ways. For one, it looks at the war from the Vietnamese point of view. Unquestionably, Americans play a significant role in the film - especially as it continues - but the main focus remains on the life of a native, Le Ly (played by Hiep Thi Le). Therein lies the other difference: unlike the male-obsessed prior films, H&E concentrates on the experience through the eyes of a woman.

Both of those factors should have meant doom for H&E. Stone never struck me as the kind of director who can ably look at things from other points of view; his often heavy-handed techniques seemed to indicate that his films would always have to stick to a macho, personal viewpoint to work. Apparently a lot of others agreed, as H&E received fairly weak reviews and tanked at the box office.

However, H&E actually demonstrates that my hypothesis was wrong. Not only was Stone able to adopt another point of view, but he did so with a deft touch I thought would be out of his reach. As such, I don’t just find H&E to a be a competent and engaging film; except perhaps for some faltering in the second half, I believe it to be the finest of his three Vietnam oriented movies.

Based on the memoirs of Le Ly, the movie covers her life in different segments. It begins with the start of the Vietnamese conflict in the mid Fifties and continues through the middle of the Eighties. Along the way, we see all of the ways that the war disrupts the life of Le Ly and her family, and the manner in which the conflict altered the country.

The first half of the film focuses solely on Le Ly’s family and life, whereas the second introduces a new element: her romance with American soldier Steve Butler (Tommy Lee Jones). As told in the movie, the two eventually married and moved to the US, where they pursued a life together.

Unfortunately, my brief synopsis of the story doesn’t really do the drama justice. H&E succeeds because of its emphasis on the Vietnamese tale. Narratives about the war itself or American veterans have been done to death; Stone executed these well in Platoon and Born but they didn’t offer anything new. H&E is a different story. This side of the tale is something that we haven’t seen, and for the most part, I found it to be very compelling. The movie really makes it clear how horribly disruptive and invasive the war was.

Stone avoids melodrama while he details the tragic events of Le Ly’s life up until the time she meets Butler. At that point, the movie becomes much less consistent and is loses its way. It simply felt like Stone’s heart wasn’t in it, and he resorts to more cinematic conventions during this time. We see how overwhelmed Le Ly initially feels, but she seems to blend in pretty quickly, and the storyline jumped around too much.

During Stone’s audio commentary, I learned a couple of facts that made the failures of this section more clear. At first I was hesitant to criticize the excessively soap operatic nature of the movie’s second hour; after all, it was based on a true story, so I thought many of the events may actually have occurred.

As it happens, the phrase “based on” becomes very important during these scenes. Apparently the Butler character is a composite based on other men the real Le Ly knew. I believe some of the events are taken out of her life, but the artistic license seems to have been exercised to a great degree.

The other area that better explains this section’s flaws stems from the pressures felt by Stone. He had to try to make the movie shorter - a frequent demand from studios - and apparently sacrificed a fair amount of information from this area. Perhaps the movie would have flowed better with the additional information, or perhaps not.

Actually, now that I’ve seen the deleted scenes - some of which relate this material - I think the movie’s second hour was simply flawed from the start. Too much of it felt like an attempt to make the film more accessible for American crowds. It seemed like Stone didn’t quite have the guts to keep more of the action where it belonged: in Vietnam. Yes, parts of it needed to move to America, since that’s where Le Ly lived much of her life, but the shift was not accomplished neatly.

Despite my criticisms of this side of the film, I still found Heaven and Earth to offer a largely winning experience. Much of my interest stemmed from the excellent acting, primarily via the Asian actors. They had some particular challenges; most of their dialogue is English that substitutes for Vietnamese, while there’s also a little Vietnamese and some pidgin English as well. The latter scenes can be somewhat jarring; we’ve heard the characters speak perfect English for quite some time when all of a sudden they have to use much more simplistic language. Essentially, the good English occurs when the characters are actually supposed to speak Vietnamese; Stone didn’t want to film in Vietnamese and then add subtitles. The pidgin English pops up when the participants actually speak English.

I can’t imagine what a challenge this must have been for the actors, but all do a credible job of speaking poorly; their attempts never seem forced or fake. The entire Asian cast is quite remarkable, especially Le, who made her film debut here. She has to go through a wide variety of ages and emotions and she does so with realism and aplomb. She stands up nicely in a daunting crowd of actors like Jones, Debbie Reynolds, Joan Chen, and Haing S. Ngor.

As with every Oliver Stone film, Heaven and Earth isn’t a smooth ride. It’ll jar and disturb many - some portions of the war are depicted graphically - and Stone makes many missteps along the way. However, I think it’s a journey worth taking. H&E provides a powerful and illuminating look at a side of war that’s usually ignored, and it creates a strong impression.

The DVD:

Heaven and Earth appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. As a whole, the movie looked very good with only a few minor concerns along the way.

Sharpness seemed uniformly excellent. At no time did I discern any hints of soft or fuzzy images; throughout the film, the picture appeared crisp and well-defined. Moiré effects and jagged edges presented no problems. Along the way, I detected a few speckles plus some exceedingly minor grit and grain, but print flaws were very rare; for the most part, the picture seemed clean and clear.

Colors appeared wonderfully natural and vibrant. Greens especially prospered throughout the movie, as they looked uniformly lush and warm. Black levels also seemed deep and rich, and contrast was strong. Shadow detail appeared appropriately thick but never excessively opaque. Ultimately, H&E provided an extremely satisfying viewing experience.

Also fine was the film’s Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. Although not the full-out sonic assault one might find in other Stone films like Any Given Sunday, the audio for H&E offered a nicely immersive and engaging track. The forward spectrum dominated as the front speakers boasted well-defined and nicely-separated sound at all times. The music showed good stereo delineation and sounds panned between channels cleanly and smoothly. The surrounds were less active partners but they contributed solid ambiance to the affair. The rears added a nice level of involvement that made the mix as a whole quite engrossing and believable.

Sound quality seemed similarly positive. Dialogue always appeared distinct and natural, with no signs of edginess or problems related to intelligibility. Effects appeared clean and robust, with fine realism and few hints of any distortion even during the louder battle scenes. The score fared especially well. Music came across as bright and bold, with clear highs and some deep bass. All in all, the soundtrack for Heaven and Earth nicely complemented the on-screen action.

In addition, this DVD of Heaven and Earth includes a few supplements, starting with a strong audio commentary from director Oliver Stone. I’ve enjoyed all of the Stone commentaries to which I’ve listened, and while it isn’t flawless, this track also provides a compelling listen.

Stone’s commentaries rarely can be called “scene-specific”. He occasionally discusses the current events in the film, but he usually just uses various parts as launching pads for whatever strikes his mind. In this case, Stone offers a greater variety of details than usual. He relates some of the creative liberties he took and comments upon Le Ly’s real life. In addition, Stone hits upon a wide variety of other subjects, such as his thoughts about the military-industrial complex, his experiences during the war, and his opinions of the current Hollywood system. He even manages to fit in a few remarks about the film itself!

Yes, that last statement sounds snide, and it probably is, but despite my cattiness, I rather liked this track. Its main flaw stems from Stone’s frequent silence during the second half of the movie. Some long silent stretches elapse, and many times Stone simply reiterates dialogue during these scenes. He still provides enough good information to make the film’s second hour worth a listen, but Stone doesn’t live up to the high standards set in the initial half. Nonetheless, it’s an often-fascinating commentary that merits your attention.

Next we find a nice compendium of “Deleted Scenes”. There nine of these in all, and they last a total of 47 minutes and five seconds. Most significant of these is the first one, a 22-minute and 35-second “Alternate Opening”. It recasts the film’s start in a manner that better explores the pre-war society of Vietnam. The other scenes are shorter but are similarly interesting.

These deleted segments can be viewed with or without commentary from Stone. Unlike his sporadic remarks during the unused footage with Any Given Sunday, Stone is very chatty here, and he relates a great deal of additional information. He covers the most important area - the reason why he dropped the scenes - and he also discusses topics that relate to the film such as the history of the region. As during the movie, Stone’s comments add to the experience.

“Cast and Crew” includes a basic biography for Stone plus simple filmography listings for actors Jones, Ngor, Chen and Le. Lastly, we get the movie’s theatrical trailer, one that refers to Platoon/Born/H&E as a “trilogy” despite Stone’s (accurate) rejection of that term.

Oliver Stone has yet to make a truly great film, and Heaven and Earth doesn’t change that. However, it’s closer to excellence than most of his efforts, and I found it to offer a generally solid piece. The DVD provides excellent picture and sound plus some strong extras. Heaven and Earth is a compelling movie that deserves your attention.

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