OLIVER STONE knows a lot about Vietnam and its modern history. In the 1960s, he dropped out of college to fight in the war there. Years later, he used that experience as the basis for ``Platoon,'' the 1986 hit that made him a major Hollywood figure. He turned again to the Vietnam War in ``Born on the Fourth of July,'' about a war veteran who became an antiwar activist.
Stone has long promised a third movie to round out his Vietnam trilogy, and now it has arrived: ``Heaven and Earth,'' based on autobiographical books by Le Ly Hayslip, a Vietnamese woman whose life has traversed an enormous range of tragic and triumphant events.
Stone uses her story as a metaphor for the wrenching changes Vietnam itself has gone through during the past several decades. At the same time, he tries not to lose sight of his heroine's odyssey as a touching human drama in its own right.
His goal is certainly ambitious: to weave the personal and the historical into a single tapestry that's at once emotionally moving, viscerally exciting, and intellectually enlightening.
Unfortunately, his filmmaking skills aren't up to the challenge. For all its good intentions, ``Heaven and Earth'' must be counted with the season's major disappointments - especially since it comes right after ``JFK,'' the boldest and brightest picture of Stone's career.
``Heaven and Earth'' begins in a rural Vietnamese village called Ky La, where Le Ly lives contentedly with her family in the early 1950s. Their lives undergo a tumultuous change when Vietnam's growing political unrest - sparked by opposition to French colonization - erupts into military violence.
THE people of Ky La are surprised by this, since French rule has always seemed rather distant and abstract to them. But these developments are impossible to avoid, and Le Ly soon finds herself caught in a confusing web of conflicts involving her traumatized neighbors and the French, South Vietnamese, American, and rebellious Viet Cong armies. Later, an American marine woos her and whisks her off to the United States, where she confronts a new set of challenges.
Le Ly's story poignantly illustrates the extraordinary difficulties, ranging from frustrations and irritations to flagrant crimes and outrageous horrors, that Vietnam endured during its protracted struggle for independence. Her tale also has an important feminist dimension, since her travails often have as much to do with her gender as the generalized chaos and brutality of the war.
This is especially clear in a harrowing sequence that shows her undergoing torture by South Vietnamese forces and rape by Viet Cong rebels and in another episode that shows her submitting to the sexual blandishments of a well-to-do Saigon employer.
By focusing on Le Ly not just as a symbol but as a complex and authentic human being, Stone avoids the mistake Brian De Palma made in ``Casualties of War,'' which also explored the intersection of combat machismo and gender oppression in Vietnam, but seemed more schematic than compassionate.
In other areas, Stone has been less successful. What attracted him to Le Ly as a character was evidently her blend of intelligence and sensitivity with an outlook on life that's almost naive in its poetic idealism.
Stone's attempt to capture this naivete is unsophisticated and heavy-handed, though, giving the film a veneer of superficial sentiment (especially in its narration) that has all the insight of a greeting card.
Things get worse when Le Ly arrives on American territory and Stone veers into social satire. Here he piles one overcooked device upon another, from exaggerated settings and hyperbolic acting to fatuous dialogue and distorting lenses, all to make the far-from-original point that '60s suburbanites were less smooth and savvy than Stone would have liked.
Some talented performers wrestle with the uneven material ``Heaven and Earth'' offers them, and they deserve credit for their good-faith efforts. Hiep Thi Le, born in Vietnam and now living in California, makes an earnest and often persuasive attempt to portray Le Ly in all her diversity, from peasanthood in Vietnam to middle-class life and eventual business success as an American citizen.
Her father is sturdily played by Haing S. Ngor, known for his good acting in ``The Killing Fields'' and the current ``My Life.'' In addition, Joan Chen follows her work in ``The Last Emperor'' and ``Twin Peaks'' with a heartfelt performance as Le Ly's mother.
Tommy Lee Jones is below his best as Le Ly's deeply troubled American husband, but much of the blame goes to his poorly written part. Debbie Reynolds and Conchata Ferrell are among the misused supporting players.
Stone wrote the screenplay, based on the books ``When Heaven and Earth Changed Places'' and ``Child of War, Woman of Peace,'' both written by Hayslip with a co-author. Japanese composer Kitaro wrote the film's appropriate music, and regular Stone collaborator Robert Richardson did the lush cinematography.
* ``Heaven and Earth'' has an * rating. It contains graphic sex, violence, and torture, as well as vulgar language.