"Gardens of Stone" begins and ends with a funeral -- the same funeral, in fact. It's the story of a green recruit named Jackie Willow (D.B. Sweeney) who joins the Army in '68, at the peak of the American involvement in Southeast Asia, only to be assigned to Fort Myer with the Old Guard, a unit whose duty it is to plant the honored dead at Arlington.
Boneyard duty is a dirty job, especially for a wet-behind-the-ears kid with visions of glory dancing in his head. Jackie wants to be where the action is, at the sharp end, and so does his sergeant (James Caan), but for different reasons. Clell Hazard, a much-decorated vet from Korea, has pulled two tours in 'Nam, in '62 and '65, and he has no illusions about the kind of mess it is there, but he wants to be a part of it anyway, if only to keep a few know-nothings from thinking they're in "Back to Bataan." "In this war, there is no front," he says. "It's not even a war. There's nothing to win and no way to win it."
"Gardens of Stone" can't in any way be counted a success, but it's not a disaster either. Based on the novel by Nicholas Proffitt, it's been written for the screen (by Ronald Bass, who also wrote "Black Widow") in a flatfooted comic-book style, and about halfway through the whole thing collapses in a heap. But, for a while at least, it's eminently watchable.
The early scenes in which the relationships between characters are laid out, especially the scenes between the soldiers on the base, are relaxed and springy: They may be Coppola's best-directed scenes since the "Godfather" films. There are remnants of a once-great director in "Gardens of Stone." Here and in his last movie, "Peggy Sue Got Married," Coppola seems to be trying to remember what it's like to build a movie on a human scale, to deal with the basics of character and story and emotion. But it's a bit like watching a gifted athlete learn to walk again after a serious injury. The moves are somewhere in his head, if only he can get to them.
In this sense, "Gardens of Stone" feels like an exercise -- it's directorial therapy. Coppola seems to be more interested in his actors here (a good sign), and he gets terrific performances out of his supporting cast. As Goody, Hazard's best friend and his old buddy from the Korea days, James Earl Jones is livelier and more ebullient than he's been since "Bingo Long." I've seen Jones come a real cropper onstage: His "Othello" was a thundering dud. But in "Gardens," he seems to be playing out of sheer joy. There's so much life in him that he seems almost to be floating. With his big gut thrusting out in front of him, he looks pumped full of helium, like one of those giant balloons in a Thanksgiving Day parade.
As Capt. Thomas, the company commander who blocks Jackie's requests for a transfer to the front, Dean Stockwell doesn't have much of a part -- his cigar is longer than his lines -- but he pulls a character out of it anyway. Since his reemergence as "Mr. Suave" in "Blue Velvet," Stockwell has become one of those actors who naturally project a kind of personal weirdness into every role: Even when the kinkiness is submerged, as it is here, nothing is ever quite straight. He's one of the movies's most delectable flakes.
Unfortunately Coppola doesn't fare as well with his leads. As Hazard, Caan gives an honorable performance; physically he's right for the role -- he's hasn't worked in pictures for five years, and in the interval his face has become baggier and more interesting -- and Coppola pulls the camera in tight to take full advantage of it. But as an actor Caan has always had limited resources. He's bland, and he doesn't have the stuff inside, the emotional depth, to take us beyond the physical and into the man.
Sweeney makes even less of an impression as Jackie. This is only his first major role, and there doesn't seem to be much going on in this guy's face. An hour after the movie I tried to remember what he looked like and couldn't. All I could come up with was a memory of purse-lipped intensity; it's the only expression he seemed to wear.
On the other hand, I couldn't forget what Anjelica Huston looked like even if I wanted to. And who would? Whenever Huston is on screen, the movie seems to slip into a different rhythm. All her scenes play like seductions. They're gently disarming and sleepy, like lullabies. No one in the film suffers more from the creaky explicitness of the dialogue than Huston. (She has to deliver the movie's worst line: "Clell thinks Vietnam is a miscalculation, a mistake. I think it's genocide.") And her role -- she plays a reporter with The Washington Post who falls in love with Hazard -- is horribly underwritten. But Huston's sparse few moments in "Gardens" may be the best scenes Coppola's ever gotten from a woman. She's a born movie siren. Every entrance is like a blast of cool air.
Like "Platoon," "Gardens of Stone" is essentially about the education of an innocent, with Sweeney in the Charlie Sheen role. But Coppola doesn't seem to know where he wants his movie to go: It's like a pleasant Sunday drive with somebody who's hopelessly lost. The son of a retired master sergeant, Jackie is aquiver with faith in the military and enthusiasm for its mission in Vietnam. He's the perfect recruit, spit-polished and combat-ready from day one. In some ways, he's kind of a junior GI Joe doll -- wind him up and he'll put hospital corners on your cot -- and a shavetail clown. But Coppola gives a soft edge to Jackie's overeager hawkishness: He's an idealist, a patriot, not a warmonger.
Overall, Coppola's attitude is detached, almost lordly. He refuses to indulge in hindsight judgments about past events, and he lets his characters hold their convictions without undermining them.
Intended as a companion piece to "Apocalypse Now," the movie feels more like a little brother to "Platoon." (Maybe that's because, at least for the moment, "Platoon" seems to have become a part of our experience of the war -- a kind of collective summing up -- and subsequently any movie that takes Vietnam as its subject will be about "Platoon" as well.) With their letters-home narrations (which also echo Martin Sheen's terse voice-over in "Apocalypse"), the two movies slide into your head together.
But "Gardens" doesn't focus on the details of combat, the grunt's-eye view, as "Platoon" did. It gives a grave's-eye view. And for this reason, the movie's condemnation of war isn't really Vietnam-specific. It's antiwar in a more general way -- because it sends idealistic young boys off to their death.
Still, there's a curious ambiguity in Coppola's feelings about the soldiers and their life. As a pacifist work, it's cockeyed -- an antiwar movie that condemns war but embraces the military. (According to reports, the Army gave the film its full cooperation and is very pleased with it.) What draws Coppola to the man's world of the soldier is clear: It's a family, like the Corleones in the "Godfather" films, with longstanding codes of honor and tradition. In "Godfather" I and II he created a clan of irresistible monsters, but their monstrousness, what they did and how Coppola felt about them, was never in doubt. In "Gardens," his thoughts are muddled: He separates the warriors from the war, and it throws the movie out of whack.
There may be a personal component in this. During the shooting of the film, Coppola lost his son in a boating accident, and he has acknowledged that there are parallels between the events in his own life and the relationship between Jackie and Hazard, who takes the kid under his wing and, by teaching him everything he knows, tries to protect him. Parents, of course, can never protect their children, not completely, and Jackie can't be saved either. And this may account somewhat for the film's keening, elegiac tone, and for Coppola's equanimity. It's also what makes it harder to dismiss the film completely. Coppola, at least in some parts of the movie, seems to wake from his post-"Apocalypse" coma. He may not yet be able to walk, but in "Gardens," bad as it is, he's learning to crawl. Gardens of Stone, opening today at area theaters, is rated R.
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