Few directors have nurtured as high a public image; few are as intimately identified with the subjects of their films. One recent profile described his typical hero as 'a tortured masculine figure, torn by conflicting loyalties . . . like John Wayne on LSD, a psychedelic he-man on a bad trip', which probably sums up Stone himself rather well. His success stems, above all, from his knack of turning his private obsessions into national issues: the broker's son who made Wall Street a parable of late Eighties greed and excess; the Jim Morrison fan who turned The Doors into a metaphor for a generation's loss of innocence.
Now Oliver Stone has made a film - his first - with a female protagonist. And, what's more, the woman is not American but Vietnamese. Heaven and Earth, based on the memoirs of Le Ly Hayslip and intended as the completion of what Stone has been calling his 'Vietnam trilogy', shows the war and its aftermath from a point of view thousands of miles distant from his own. And the question is: can he make a successful movie that isn't essentially about O Stone, American anti-hero? Can he carry off the great imaginative leap to a female, Oriental point of view?
If we are to believe the director, that leap actually shouldn't be so daunting. The press kit for Heaven and Earth is packed with typical Stone statements of the global- village, melting-pot, hands-across-the- ocean variety: 'We are heading toward a new era in the 21st century, I hope, of total consciousness. People of all colours will be sharing a shrinking planet. It's necessary for us to get out of our skins and cross this spiritual and divisive gulf that people have formed.'
The opening sequences - idyllic, romantic images of rural Vietnam - unfold altogether in this vein. Happy peasants work the land in perfect harmony with the elements and their religion, 'each grain of rice a symbol of life'. Wizened sages pop up, as they do periodically throughout the story, full of ancient wisdom about karma and the spirits. Even when the bad guys - the French, the Viet Cong, the Americans - swarm through the lush, green paddies, their tools of destruction, the fireballs streaking across the sky, have a terrible beauty (Stone is a master at aestheticising the horrors he affects to deplore).
The war sends Le Ly, a simple village girl, on a long, harrowing odyssey. She becomes, in brisk succession, a spy, a maid, a hostess and a war profiteer. She marries a GI (Tommy Lee Jones) who takes her to America, which Stone films in delirious Steadicam sequences as a surreal consumer orgy. She settles there, plans to open a grocery, divorces, prospers and returns home to visit her parents, who reproach her with abandoning her ancestors. The film seems ambivalent towards her fate, part sad deracination, part American success story.
This is a mighty bite of life, and the film never quite manages to digest it. Stone's screenplay is poorly structured; it lurches unsteadily through the locations and the years, unable to telescope Le Ly's myriad experiences. For instance, the father of Le Ly's first child disappears from view (his wife has ensured they lose contact) but then suddenly, years later, we learn that they've been exchanging letters all along, and from there it's just a short step to yet another teary reunion.
Le Ly's husband (Tommy Lee Jones) is a particular casualty of this overreach: his quick inconsistencies - white knight and suitor, lover, champion, snivelling wreck - must stem from the fact that he's the distillation of several different men in the real Le Ly's life.
It's all the odder, then, that roughly three-quarters in, you realise that Jones is quietly taking over the picture. Partly this is down to his weight as an actor; Hiep Thi Le, the newcomer who plays Le Ly, is radiant and sweet, but she can't hold her own opposite him or carry a 141-minute movie. But partly it's because, in the Vietnam veteran's pain, his bitterness, his confusion, you recognise that familiar angry anti-hero fighting for attention. Stone is secretly more interested in him.
That's why Le Ly is a dull, bland heroine. Stone's most compelling figures are divided within themselves (one of JFK's main weaknesses was its sanitisation of the Jim Garrison character). For Charlie Sheen in Platoon and Tom Cruise in Born on the Fourth of July, the first two films of the Vietnam trilogy, the turmoil of the war was a catalyst for their own anguish: Sheen's recognition that he too is a cold-blooded killer, Cruise's passage from ardent, wide-eyed patriot to angry, disillusioned, paralysed anti- war activist. They have the inner flaw that is the lynchpin of Western tragedy.
But Heaven and Earth isn't a tragedy and the forces Le Ly confronts aren't her own inner demons; they're foreign devils. The film is simply about the will to survive: it's a chain of travails without the psychological growth that would give the story structure and meaning. There's no internal struggle, no moment of self-revelation.
Now this may have something to do with Stone's concern to produce an upbeat ending: to show that the spirit of Vietnam was uncrushed by the worst that America could wreak. It could be connected to the attentive presence of the real Le Ly Hayslip on the film set. It may well be a true and accurate portrait.
But if Stone chose her life, above all other Vietnamese lives, to dramatise in his movie, there is a reason. And it looks very much like a sophisticated intellectual Westerner's idealised vision of Third World simplicities. Stone says that he has broken new ground in showing the Vietnamese as Real Human Beings, without racism or prejudice. But he may have done them almost as great a disservice, the disservice of patronage and condescension.