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

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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."

Most formative

"Everyone says that," he says, almost laughing, "but I would have to say that Vietnam was not the most formative experience that I've had. My birth was."

That's an example of Stone's sense of humor, which is why nobody will confuse him with David Letterman.

Leaving the joke hanging laughlessly in the air, he continues: "Really, one of the worst things I had to get through was my parents' divorce. A lot of my madness, my rage, comes from that period.

"Vietnam certainly helped form my character -- it was the furnace. But it wasn't the beginning or the end. I think of other things I've done or felt -- the teaching, the death of JFK, a period in the Merchant Marine -- that were all important."

Yet clearly there's a sense of exculpation in "Heaven and Earth," which closely examines a culture that Stone saw 20 years ago over the gun-sight of an M-16.

"We were always suspicious of the villagers. We assumed they were NVA. When I went back 20 years later, I saw the whole thing differently -- a whole culture there, a culture that worshiped its ancestors and loved the land which we had stupidly tried to move them off of. We called it 'relocation.' Those were the sort of things you never knew about if you were a soldier."

But he denies he's obsessed.

Obsession denial

"No, I'm not. It's just that there are things to be learned from such events, however, and I don't know how you learn them without examining them. You have to examine things. Look, we Americans have a tendency to go into Third World countries -- Vietnam, El Salvador, now Somalia. But if you go into Third World countries, you should know what they are thinking -- otherwise, tragedy. I feel strongly we should not repeat our mistakes."

He claims he doesn't even court controversy.

"I don't seek it out. I do it from passion. It's not about self-promotion. If something needs clarification, I have to speak up. The film should speak for itself, but sometimes you have to take a stand.

"But I'm not a propagandist. I like to think of myself as an artist or a filmmaker."

He also admits, almost ruefully, "I seem to attract lightning. But I've never set out to make a controversial film. I guess it's the subjects I've chosen; they seem to be lightning rods. Obviously" -- joke alert, the Stone sense of humor is about to explode again -- "I'm being tortured for something I did in a previous life."

However, contrary impulses still run through his work. The villain in "Heaven and Earth," for example, is Marine gunnery Sgt. Steve Butler (Tommy Lee Jones), who marries and brutalizes Le Ly (Hiep Thi Le). Butler is a dark and troubling man, a ] representative of all that's evil in the American presence. For example, Butler is identified as a member of Operation Phoenix, the CIA-sponsored assassination campaign against Viet Cong officials.

Yet, even Stone admits there's something extremely charismatic about the sergeant, just as there was about the evil Sgt. Barnes in "Platoon."

"Yes, there is a fascination. What makes them exciting is that sense of danger. In this case, he turns it on himself. It's as if he's consumed in dark fire."

The same, almost certainly, could be said for his creator.

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