** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Francis Coppola

Written by Ronald Bass

With James Caan, D.B. Sweeney, James Earl Jones, Anjelica Huston, and Dean Stockwell.

Remember when nobody wanted to talk about Vietnam? Seems like a long time ago, but right after the withdrawal of U.S. armed forces, no one seemed to have much to say. Then, slowly but surely, a few generally, if sometimes mutedly, antiwar movies began to trickle out of Hollywood. Some, like Ted Post’s spare Go Tell the Spartans, went virtually unnoticed. Others, like Hal Ashby’s Coming Home, were lauded; and Francis Coppola’s Apocalypse Now occupied that odd ground between praise and damnation. Since then, the floodgates have opened to a tide of revisionism from Missing in Action to Rambo. Though these films almost invariably do well at the box office, Hollywood, liberal to the last, reserved its official praise for the unstintingly antiwar Platoon.

Francis Coppola, with Gardens of Stone, becomes the first director to make a second film about the war, but with a feature that couldn’t be less like the hallucinatory Apocalypse Now with its intoxicated killers-in-uniform. On the contrary, Gardens of Stone is a gentle film, almost a reverie, about the effects of Vietnam on a group of stateside soldiers and their loved ones. Set among the Army’s permanent burial details at Arlington National Cemetery during 1968 and 1969, it treats its characters generously, respecting their varying beliefs (in contrast to the multiple layers of hypocrisy practiced by virtually everyone in Apocalypse Now) and reframing from judging them solely on the basis of their political affiliations. However, as in the earlier film, Coppola still seems detached from his characters and their problems, expending more energy on the style and form of his film than on its ostensible theme.

In its simplest, overarching form, that theme concerns the destruction and rebirth of families. The action opens with the observance of such a destruction, a military funeral. As Jackie Willow’s young widow (Mary Stuart Masterson) looks on sobbing, a detail headed by the hard boiled veteran noncom, Sergeant Hazard (James Caan), goes through the ritual of burial, complete with a 21-gun salute, music, and presentation of colors. On the sound track, we hear the voice of the dead young man reading a letter he wrote to Hazard, which describes the hellish, dispiriting experience of Vietnam. From there, the film segues into a flashback of Willow’s (D.B. Sweeney) first day on the cemetery post, his first meetings with Hazard, the growth of their relationship, and so on.

As far as mere incident goes, this is a fairly dense film. Coppola has also assembled an unusually large cast and presents an exceptional display of ensemble acting. Even the smallest roles are notable for ‘the vividness the performers bring to them. Dean Stockwell, as the company commander, is a career officer with astonishing bureaucratic sk ills, a kind of Patton of the desk set. Lonette McKee sparkles in a brief appearance as a black southern belle and wife of Hazard’s best friend, Sergeant “Goody” Nelson (James Earl Jones). Anjelica Huston is a sympathetic but independent Washington Post writer and antiwar activist who becomes Hazard’s lover. And Dick Anthony Williams is somehow appealing as an almost psycho Army disciplinarian.

After a while, however, the very likability of the characters becomes a drawback. About halfway through the film it becomes clear that there are virtually no unsympathetic characters to be seen. An obnoxious, nehru-jacketed lawyer (played by the unattractive rock impresario Bill Graham) who goads the pro-Army but antiwar Hazard with taunts of “baby killer” is excused for his behavior in the very next scene. Though it’s the most extreme case, it’s typical of the way Coppola goes out of his way to forgive bad behavior.

This kindliness, however well meant and however useful to the large cast, backfires. Every character in the movie has the same problem: how to reconcile strong feelings one way or another about the war with feelings for friends who disagree. That’s a real-life problem that no doubt came up a lot, but everyone here comes to the identical, open-minded conclusion: go your own way, but respect the fact that others are entitled to their own opinions. This attitude is the inevitable result of the narrative flow of the movie, in which the family that Hazard has created with his Army buddies opens its arms to nurture everyone who comes in contact with it, with no questions asked: platoon as therapy group.

Within this ersatz family (Hazard and his girl as mom and dad, Sergeant Nelson as chummy uncle, various khaki brothers, cousins, etc) the central conflict is between Hazard and surrogate son Willow. Hazard, a veteran of two tours in Vietnam, hates the war, believes it’s foolish to wage it and impossible to win it; Willow sees it as a moral imperative and a chance for glory. But rather than wage familial war over the disagreement, the two develop a kind of mute anger that is only rarely voiced; they prefer to declare their affection for each other to anyone else who’ll listen. And since we know how it all turns out — Willow goes to Vietnam and dies — the drama becomes shadowy and somehow beside the point. There’s no tension either in the catalog of the growth of the relationship or in the actual outcome.

However, the thematic slack of the picture is brilliantly disguised by Coppola’s technique, which really must be regarded as the most sophisticated in Hollywood. His last film, Peggy Sue Got Married, was a similar exercise in technique, but somehow Coppola seemed more at ease with the fantastic elements in that film. His concentration of highly romantic, completely fabricated images reinforced the film’s romantic themes and Coppola ended up with a successful whole. Here, his commitment to upholding the legitimacy of every character’s opinion means he has to switch points of view constantly. Every scene is dominated by a different character, every separate viewpoint gets a hearing. To shift like that requires fluid transitions, and the way Coppola moves from one sequence to another is never less than brilliant. Beyond following dramatic logic, one shot follows another with a visual impetus: with matching motion into or out of the frame, complementary compositions, or contrasting elements in the compositions.

But none of these viewpoints ever comes to dominate the picture. Not only does the center not hold, there is no center at all. Though Coppola sticks to the principal narrative line and resists tangential, anecdotal episodes, he might as well have gone off in those directions for all the coherence he ultimately achieves. There are general emotions loosened — mostly pity and sadness — but no real understanding of how they came to exist. We’re constantly reminded that each and every character has feelings of pain or love or regret, but, with the exception of Hazard, we’re not informed of their origins. Bereft of that core, Gardens of Stone drifts off into decoration that’s intricate and highly accomplished, but strictly ornamental.

Throughout the movie, Hazard and Nelson are called on to make toasts, and they invariably repeat, “Here’s to guys like us, there aren’t many left.” That may be true, but we never do find out what guys like them are.