Salvador, the 1986 movie that introduced the directorial work of Oliver Stone to the world, is a film of considerable interest. Most people who saw it were impressed by its gritty, cinema-verité style and its atmosphere of headlong, unpredictable violence. Everything about it seemed authentic, from the squalid anti-glamour of its mean Central American streets to its adrenaline-happy, pot-head post-Vietnam journalist characters and the absence of stars. James Woods as a hip newspaperman had a seedy, quasi-psychopathic, fascinating presence and the film’s urgency benefited greatly from his wired, high-risk performance. Moreover, its plot incorporated events right out of the recent headlines about US policy in Central America. It was a vivid opinionated movie, replete with energy and talent, that attracted, and deserved much attention.
There was also a lot in Salvador that marked Oliver Stone as a professional, in the traditional Hollywood sense of the word. This would turn out to be good news for him in important ways, and certainly for the people whose fortunes were connected with the subsequent commercial success of his pictures. It would be less auspicious for the dwindling band of dervishes still scanning the horizon for the return of Orson Welles. “Art” is not what the moguls in California now propose to sell the Japanese, and it was apparent even then that, in that regard, Oliver Stone would not be a problem.
The only thing really novel about Salvador was its timeliness. Its mildly druggy, anti-establishment buddy team—Woods and James Belushi—provided yuppie audiences the shock of recognizing the likes of Hunter Thompson. Scenes in which the hippies get to tell off flaky “establishment” journalists and too-handsome US military-industrial zombies took everyone back to the glory days of the Sixties. In them, Stone was displaying a sure instinct for the spirit every Hollywood director since Edwin S. Porter has tried to summon forth—the little kid inside every moviegoer who likes to bounce up and down in the seat and clap.
So our heroes in Salvador, not bleeding-heart intellectuals but rough-and-ready American lugs, find themselves sympathizing with the rebels. American right-mindedness goes abroad, again. In one scene, Woods is shown walking up and down, exhorting rebel firing squads to spare their victims lest in punishing their enemies the rebels become “no better than them,” or words to that effect—at which point the film briefly becomes a considerably less serious examination of the Central American troubles than Woody Allen’s Bananas, which has a similar speech played for laughs.
Salvador is safely located in the traditional left-liberal ethos of Hollywood. In spite of its headlong pace and verismo, the fundamental things apply and three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. If the shade of the Motion Picture Division of World War II’s Office of War Information could rise there would be ghostly applause. The OWI would be particularly gratified by the way the film makes its points available to the average moviegoer, who we all know must be spared ambiguities, confusions, any element of moral surprise. Salvador may owe a few things to Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers, but it’s a true descendant of Casablanca and even more of a film like Arise My Love, whose lovely, phony, international sophistication makes it as much an artifact of its time as Salvador is of the Eighties. It too had bohemian, anti-fascist journalists abroad, trading wisecracks in the face of danger, living for the moment. In spirit, in ideology, Salvador continues the Hollywood gauchiste tradition of such pictures as exactly as times allow.
None of which makes Salvador a bad picture. It’s better than most others of its kind. But it’s completely accepting of every traditional movie method of keeping the message uncontaminated by irony or complexity. (The message being that the US, in the name of cold war necessity, was associating itself with the violent repression of human rights.) Although artistically unexciting, the film’s conventional right-mindedness may seem blameless from a moral standpoint. But art is the realm of paradox and, particularly in movies, simplicity of purpose has a way of casting ambiguous shadows.
With his Vietnam films, Born on the Fourth of July and Platoon, The Doors, and particularly JFK, it became apparent that Oliver Stone was setting out to dramatize nothing less than the history of the second half of America’s Twentieth Century. Those who did their best to be crazy in the Sixties can find their fondest illusions confirmed in The Doors, released in 1991. According to the film, the band and Jim Morrison were just as terrific, funny, trippy, and delightful as they imagined. Not only that, but they had their serious side: they read Blake and understood every word far better than their teachers and were really in touch with Native American symbols and traditions in this mystic way. Now, in The Doors, denizens of the period have their own official period movie, accepting the Sixties entirely on its own terms, exactly as it would like to be remembered. The film is beautiful baloney, but it’s good show business, and it will serve as Hollywood’s take on the period, which means that henceforth it will be more real than the vanished reality.
Stone’s official Hollywood history moves backward to deal with John Kennedy’s assassination. Was Kennedy a young and saintly alternative to America’s blind cold war leadership? Did he try to turn around the policies that involved America fatally in Vietnam? Was he gunned down by a creepy consortium of suits bent on right-wing domination? If he didn’t, and wasn’t, there wouldn’t be much of a movie, only a lot of boring confusion of the kind that leaves people feeling let down, which is not what they go to the movies for. To be fair, quite a lot of boring confusion seeps into the several hours of JFK but it’s beautifully edited.*
Was Jim Garrison, as so many New Orleanians insist, a local ninny who couldn’t get a table at De Ruth’s or Carlos Marcello on the telephone? Or was he Kevin Costner, with Sissy Spacek playing June Allyson as his wife, a two-fisted, clean-cut, average Joe with an important job to do and the guts to look the gray rat of nation-wide, all-encompassing conspiracy in its beady red eye? Does Ed Asner have eyebrows? Are we talking movies or what?
So to the Hollywood official history of the American intervention in Central America and the Hollywood official history of Sixties music Stone added the Hollywood official history of the Kennedy assassination.
At the center of Stone’s oeuvre stands what is now being called his “Vietnam trilogy.” This began with Platoon in 1986, was continued with Born on the Fourth of July, and is now complete, with the release in December of Heaven and Earth. It would be reasonable to expect it to amount to a similar official Hollywood history, that of the Vietnam War. So, finally, it is.
Oliver Stone is a Vietnam veteran and an able film maker, and neither his seriousness nor his ambition should be discounted. Why call his Vietnam trilogy an “official Hollywood history?” Because with atavistic reverence it observes every hoary piety of the message movie, taking only the risks that American film makers have always taken when aiming “difficult” material at the mainstream audience. Because it sentimentalizes without mercy, going for the cheap emotional payoff with an utter indifference to political or psychological non sequitur. And because its defects can be summed up in one word, a word which seems synonymous with most American movies: obviousness.
Platoon begins by rendering with extraordinary realism the sights and sounds of the Parrot’s Beak region of Vietnam near the Cambodian border. It was the sector assigned to the United States Twenty-fifth “Tropic Lightning” Division, whose patch its soldier characters appear to wear (and with which Stone himself served). No one who has ever been in a tropical forest, no one who has ever been in Vietnam can dismiss the sensory accuracy and impact of the film’s opening moments. It goes on to document with grim sympathy the introduction to battle of a young recruit played by Charlie Sheen.
For a while Platoon amazes. Its authenticity and dark, dramatic tone promise a great deal; even its use of Samuel Barber’s haunting Adagio for Strings is just right, and as usual it is skillfully edited. But the characters gradually disappear into formula and action into melodrama. The bad sergeant, Tom Berenger, becomes a bully out of The Silver Dollar Saloon. Willem Dafoe’s good sergeant was Christ-like enough to win the actor the actual role in Martin Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ. And so it goes, warlovers versus peaceniks, boozers versus potheads, the brutes against the nice guys in what turns out to be theatrical heroics engaging formula villainy. OK, you might say, good versus evil, isn’t that what movies are always about? Sure, but does it really have to be so simple, every single time?
This one should have been different, since Platoon evoked the physical experience so vividly. It failed in proportion to its possibilities for showing complexity. The final voice-over, which tries to hype the film’s simplicities into fancy dualism, is only a facile summary.
The second part of the trilogy, Born on the Fourth of July, appears to derive the misfortunes of the cold war from the inadequacies of life in Massapequa, Long Island. It commences with kids playing at combat, then shifts to an Independence Day parade whose features become progressively more sinister and random. An accumulation of details documents the mindless patriotism of the era. At one point a familiar voice is heard welcoming the struggle against communism, expressing a willingness to “bear every burden.” It’s the voice of none other than “JFK,” no pacifist saint this time, but a mellifluous shaman telling children the “old lie,” dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.
Ron Kovic’s own memoir, on which the film is based, is an angry, confessional inquiry, a personal confrontation with the meaninglessness of nearly every war. The movie is all glib explanation; the paradoxes of populist democracy, the corruptions attendant on patriotism and world power, and the spiritual limitations of the American working class are reduced to stereotypes and subjected to a Hollywood treatment, banal in its obviousness and crass in its moralizing.
Nor are the explanations particularly illuminating, suggesting as they do the revisionist insights of a bright high school student critically considering recent history for the first time. The shoddy machismo of a recruiting sergeant, the ghastly prudishness and petty bourgeois conformism of Kovic’s parents are presented for judgment. (“Don’t say penis in this house,” says Kovic’s mother, in response to a drunken outburst by her crippled son.) The general disdain that anyone of the slightest thoughtfulness feels at patriotic displays and military posturing is exploited and addressed in scenes staged as devastating insight. Are Massapequa’s Fourth of Julys, so sunny and bright with their flags and drums, actually no more than death traps through which ardent children are bent to the sinister will of an evil government intent on war for its own sake? Was it all different when the enemy was Hitler instead of some misperceived liberation movement ten thousand miles away?
At one point in reflecting on the futility and irony of his own tragedy, which involved his mistaken killing of a fellow Marine in combat, Kovic wrote:
He’d never figured it would ever happen this way. It never did in the movies. There were always the good guys and the bad guys, the cowboys and the Indians. There were always the enemy and the good guys and each of them killed the other.
But “the movies” have their own vocabulary of limited irony to account for some variation in regard to cowboy-Indian relations and friendly fire. Born on the Fourth of July is not as different from the movies to which Kovic refers as it should be. By its reduction of his tragic deliberations the film creates moral confusion. The scenes showing the suffering of the youth and his family are so gripping, their simple-minded blue-collar Catholic unconsciousness so pathetic, that the subject of the picture seems to become the utter inability of Long Island’s fetishes and idols—flags, uniforms, crucifixes—to protect its people from misfortune.
Late in the picture, Stone stages an American Revolution for the kids to cheer for. Demonstrators, led by Tom Cruise in his wheel chair, are first brutalized by killer cops at the 1972 Miami convention, then shown putting their delegates to flight, ruining their party, practically driving Nixon out of town. Cruise makes a speech proclaiming his love of country while denouncing the country’s leadership as utterly corrupt, “robbers, rapists, and thieves.” But fortunately, as a result of the revolution we’ve been shown on screen with its charging demonstrators sweeping all before them, there’s a brand new United States. In the new good United States—symbolized by a Democratic convention as opposed to a Republican one—Cruise/Kovic has a shining moment and addresses the country at large. The Fourth of July, presumably, will never again be celebrated in Massapequa. Or else they’ll start at the other side of town and fly the flags upside down. We end with radical theatrics, unconvincing liberal compromises, and cultural disdain. In other words commercial movies—in a form as obvious as Kovic remembers it.
Heaven and Earth, the last film of the trilogy, represents the adaptation of two separate books by Le Ly Hayslip, When Heaven and Earth Changed Places and Child of War, Woman of Peace.
Ms. Hayslip’s story is an extraordinary one. There seem to have been few aspects of the female condition in wartime Vietnam that she did not experience, from serving as a Viet Cong soldier to working as a Danang prostitute to being a GI bride. She grew up a villager on the central coast of South Vietnam, a region particularly avid in its support for the Viet Cong guerrillas and hostile to the Saigon government and its American backers. Her first book is especially enlightening about how the war looked to the peasants of that region, and in consequence provides many insights into why the American side was finally defeated.
The personal elements of her story are harrowing and often horrifying but her account is clear-eyed and not without the kind of salty, tough-minded humor that has always sustained survivors everywhere. Her experiences reinforced her commitment to Buddhism and the lyrical reflections with which her book are punctuated are deeply influenced by Buddhist insight. She now lives in San Diego and runs an international charitable operation called East Meets West Foundation.
The story of Heaven and Earth is not one that lends itself to the kind of big action scenes Oliver Stone stages most effectively. Instead we see, for example, dragon-fly helicopters descending on rice paddies, bending the peaceful landscape to their nightmare force. His star, young Hiep Thi Le, makes a sympathetic, spirited Le Ly Hayslip. Stone’s film is convincing in reconstructing wartime Danang, and he assembles a believable Vietnamese family from among an international cast of actors including Dr. Haing S. Ngor and Joan Chen.
This is preeminently a story of suffering, loss, and exile. From the moment the war intrudes on the landscape with the coming of the French troops in the 1950s, the mood is somber and almost ceremonial and perhaps for that reason the many emotional scenes fail to move us. The viewer expects the worst and waits for a change of tone which is not forthcoming—not necessarily a fault of Stone’s.
Tommy Lee Jones plays Steve Butler, the Marine who married Le Ly and takes her to the States. Perhaps because he’s an amalgam of four different men in Hayslip’s life, he’s hard to figure out, sometimes tender, sometimes violent, mainly confused about what he wants from his woman and life in general. For a “high definition” actor like Jones, Butler seems undefined. His character finally resolves into melodrama when he meets an unhappy country boy’s ending in a pickup, killing himself with one of the guns he’s so fond of. It’s another case of the war coming home.
Stone has predictable fun with the reaction of a Vietnamese peasant girl to the gross abundance of American supermarkets and her encounter with a blue-collar world, once again represented by hair curlers and the cheap furniture in tacky living rooms. Here the reaction he documents is close to the one Hayslip describes in her own books. But every once in a while Stone departs from her narrative, for reasons that seem to suggest his impatience with subtlety and his passion for emphasis. Asked by a reporter why the Jones character is shown having shot himself naked when in life he was found clothed, Le Ly Hayslip replied, “Maybe Oliver is thinking that when you are born you are naked, so you must be sure to take nothing with you when you go.” Maybe he wanted to echo the Book of Common Prayer. In the book, when Hayslip is tortured by South Vietnamese interrogators, there’s no mention of Americans being present. In one torture scene, Heaven and Earth shows what plainly appears to be a US adviser on the scene, standing indifferently by at parade rest.
So Heaven and Earth, ending the trilogy, is above all a movie and one not entirely unrelated to the ones Kovic bitterly recalls. By its own claimed intentions it ought to have been a counterweight to such films. But again it is the work of professionals, including Robert Richardson and David Brenner.
What is it about movies? Stalin and Hitler loved them, all the major liars and tyrants seem to have been fans. They are beloved of all simplifiers, the purveyors of ideologies and alibis. Do they really exercise some gravitational impulse on life that flattens out character and extracts obviousness from the myriad chambers of reality? Is it their photographic dimension that makes them congenial to propaganda? Do pictures lie more readily than words?
Hollywood, in colonizing and vulgarizing the national imagination, transfigured the Punch and Judy ethic of popular culture into a mystique: villains and unfaithful spouses died violently, the insensitive and bigoted were punched in the mouth. The informing spirit was sometimes generous, nearly always obvious and simple-minded. But it wasn’t only Hollywood that specialized in fancy simplifications. Eisenstein and Riefenstahl were only two of the talented Europeans who used film to replace reality with their clients’ version of things. For the Europeans, the clients were ideological supremos, for Hollywood the client was an imaginary adolescent, many million strong.
At one point during the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese Communist government announced its intention to replace the traditional Chinese ideographical system with a “Big Character” writing which would not only be simpler to read but would have the effect of simplifying the expression of complex issues. It was a frightening development, an assault on thought itself. In some ways it threatened to turn everything in China into a movie.
The best film makers, the ones we don’t have to patronize and forgive ourselves for liking, seem to have resisted the pull of simplification. It may be that you just have to be really good. I went to see a Stone movie once with someone whom I knew from Vietnam days and my friend said about Stone: “He wants to have it both ways.” And so he does, he wants to be a vet and a protester, to be for the GIs and the Viet Cong, an American and a Vietnamese. The funny thing is that—in life—it’s no trick. People have it both ways all the time, in life. There are people walking around who have embodied just about all those conditions, and Le Ly Hayslip is one of them. But it’s different in art, ever so much harder. You can do it sometimes, but you have to be an artist, not a Hollywood pro.
Rita Kempley in The Washington Post had a few questions for Le Ly Hayslip after the release of Heaven and Earth. This is one of them:
Q: You were raped by the Viet Cong, tortured by the South Vietnamese and led into prostitution by the Americans—but you don’t seem angry at any of them.
A: Without them there would be no book to tell or no movie. Those bad people put me on the path so I could progress. I can only be grateful to them. Without him raping me, I would never have left my village; I would still be a little stupid farm girl.
Welcome to Hollywood, Ms. Hayslip.
February 17, 1994
Stone’s attention to cutting and his use of first-rate editors and sound technicians is a strong feature of his work. His editors on JFK, Pietro Scalia and Joe Hutshing got Oscars. So did Claire Simpson who edited Platoon and the sound teams for that film, Wilkinson, Rogers, Grenzbach, and Kaye. Joe Hutshing also shared an Oscar for Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July with David Brenner, who edited Heaven and Earth. Stone’s frequent cinematographer Robert Richardson won an Oscar for JFK and nominations for Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July. ↩