The Obsessions Of Oliver The filmmaker's passion moves 'Heaven and Earth'

December 19, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

New York -- He still looks like Peck's bad boy up on charges before Mrs. Jones, the schoolmarm. "Did you put bubble gum in Ruby Sue's hair? Did you dip Polly's pigtails in the inkwell? Did you break that window with your slingshot? Oliver -- what are we going to do with you?"

Except that the charges on which the ever-mischievous Oliver Stone has been brought up reflect not yesterday's bucolic but today's brutal America:

"Did you accuse your leaders of lying to your generation and wasting them in an unwinnable war? Did you accuse them of dishonoring and debasing the men who fought and bled for them? Did you accuse them of killing the president of the United States back in 1963? And are you now accusing them of devastating a land and culture for the most trifling of reasons? What are we going to do with you?"

Well, apparently what we're going to do with you is make you rich and famous and powerful, though to look at Oliver Stone sitting in a New York hotel room isn't to see wealth or fame or power, but only . . . Peck's bad boy.

The hair's a thatch hanging in bangs down his head, messy and un-moussed; the front teeth have that goofy gap between them, similar to Alfred E. Neuman's and Huck Finn's. In jeans and a work shirt, he seems unformed and sleepy, as if he's just awakened from a nap. He has that infernal American boy-man thing going on: can't sit still, always squirming or squinching up his face, arms and legs flapping wildly as though he courses with energies for which no release valve exists. A bellicose laugh, a bully's pugnaciousness, a sense of not suffering fools -- not even quasi-, demi-, pseudo- or neo-fools -- lightly.

But still, and over everything, he's got passion. It burns and flashes; you see it when his eyes flame up as he denounces the MIA controversy as "a bogus right-wing scheme cooked up to keep us hating [the Vietnamese] and to make sure we don't end the sanctions against them." President Clinton, he scoffs, is "terrified of being called a wimpy Democrat." Attorney General Janet Reno, he snorts, has "the Puritan mind-set." The newspapers, he smirks, are going nuts over Gerald Posner's "Case Closed," which is "just the Warren Commission reheated and restirred."

Harrumpher

He's a great harrumpher. He snorts, he paws, he bellows; the energy flickers out and so does the gloom, for clearly this is a man with a morose, even petulant, side. He doesn't give interviews so much as hold court -- issuing edicts and generalizations and position papers.

And some say his movies are position papers. The latest, which opens Christmas Day, is "Heaven and Earth," which may be the only movie about the Vietnam War that's louder than the Vietnam War.

"It's the last part of the story I have to tell," says Stone, defiantly.

Nothing if not ambitious

"Heaven and Earth" is nothing if not ambitious: Derived from two memoirs by Le Ly Hayslip ("When Heaven and Earth Changed Places" and "Child of War, Woman of Peace"), it's the peasant's view of Vietnam. It shows a young rural girl during the French Indo-Chinese War in 1954 and then, a decade later, in the middle of the American presence in her country, which for her involves not merely war but a lengthy interrogation, torture and rape. Then, after the fall of Saigon in 1975, she's off to America, married to an ex-Marine and experiencing still more tribulations, including violent abuse, alcoholism and bigotry.

In all, it's pretty heavy sledding.

"Part of what art does," Stone announces, "is bring up the most evil things and make us confront them."

Yet however much Stone may believe in "art," it's also clear he's operating out of a reservoir of experience unique in film culture. If he's a blowhard, he earned the right to his hard blowing. Alone among his Hollywood peers, he is the man who was there.

After dropping out of Yale, he served the grunt's 12-month tour of Vietnam as an infantryman, earning the Bronze Star. He returned to the United States with an attitude problem that manifested itself in an arrest for marijuana possession. He studied filmmaking at New York University's famous school, under the not-yet-famous Martin Scorsese. He made his early way as a writer, winning an Oscar for the superheated "Midnight Express" in 1978. His first film as director was utterly forgettable -- "The Hand," a psychological thriller. His second attracted attention but not ticket buyers -- "Salvador." But it was "Platoon," his third, a semi-autobiographical account of a grunt's long year in the paddies and glades -- and perhaps the first installment of the exorcism that has marked his professional life -- that made him a commanding world figure.

Even though "Heaven and Earth" is his fifth film dealing with Vietnam either directly or indirectly, Stone denies he is obsessed with it. Besides "Platoon," others that touched on the American experience of Vietnam were "Born on the Fourth of July," "The Doors" and "JFK."

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