In the ’80s and the ’90s, Francis Ford Coppola made several movies that he freely admitted were strictly for the money. That so many of those films (Peggy Sue Got Married, Tucker: The Man and His Dream, Bram Stoker’s Dracula) turned out to be solid pieces of entertainment, is to his credit as a skilled director. Gardens of Stone is not one of those films.

This unfocused look at the stateside military during the Vietnam War tries to take a bold approach by not focusing on the insanity of war that other Vietnam films of that time did. It feels like Coppola sat down and tried to do the opposite of what films like Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, and Hamburger Hill were doing. While those films were obviously inspired by Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, he had moved past the need to focus on the visceral insanity and violence of the conflict. Instead, he chose to look back in an attempt to understand what the bad judgments were that led to so many young men being put in that situation.

To achieve Coppola’s lofty ends, the film adopts the viewpoint of Sgt. Clell Hazard (James Caan). Part of a special detail that puts on marching displays for tourists and performs the ceremonial duties when burying the war dead at Arlington National Cemetery, Clell feels his combat experience is being wasted. He begs repeatedly for a transfer to a base where he can train the young recruits heading overseas to fight. He believes his two tours of duty give him a special insight into how to survive what he views as a war that is not winnable. His requests are repeatedly denied and his frustration grows until he decides to focus on the young men already in his company. Realizing the trajectory of the war, Clell knows that the Army will soon begin drawing on these troops for more manpower.

This could have been a uniquely ironic story of a pragmatist who has as much disdain for Vietnam protesters as he does for his superiors, who want to stick their heads in the sand, hoping the tide of the war will turn. But Coppola’s unsure handle on the story and inability to rein in some awful overacting by certain members of his cast turns the film into a melodramatic mess.

Perhaps the most glaring problems come in the form of two performances. D.B. Sweeney, as a young recruit that Clell takes under his wing, tries to play earnest and naïve, but ends up giving the worst Keanu Reeves performance by someone not named Keanu Reeves. Anjelica Huston, as Clell’s girlfriend, sports a watered-down southern accent that comes and goes from scene to scene. That could almost be forgivable, unfortunately, she is unable to hide just how embarrassed she seems to be when spouting some of the more overly melodramatic dialogue.

Which leads us to the script by Ronald Bass. Aside from the heavy dollops of shameless melodrama — for which I believe Coppola deserves some of the blame — his script contains the sort of 20/20 ironic hindsight that is too often mistaken for insight. Knowing how the Vietnam War went down, it’s too easy to turn Clell and his friend, Goody (James Earl Jones), into knowing prophets of doom. Their too on-the-nose commentary on the pitfalls that the U.S. military faces in the war comes across as smug instead of righteously angry. They have entire scenes of dialogue comprised of holier-than-thou speeches, turning them from characters into mouthpieces. This is a real shame when Caan and Jones work as hard as they do to make their characters come to life. In spite of the script, they manage to breathe life into several scenes that put the melodrama on the back burner and just let them interact as two old friends should. Jones, in particular, shines in these moments, unleashing a profane and nimble sense of humor made all the more funny because of his imposing physical stature.

It is rare to see a director as talented as Coppola make such a mediocre film. I realize he’s not infallible, but when he fails, I expect him to fail spectacularly (The Cotton Club, Youth Without Youth), not crank out a half-baked melodrama with delusions of grandeur. Still, I have to give him credit for taking a different approach to the late-’80s Hollywood Vietnam craze that he helped inspire not a decade earlier. Sure, there are scenes discussing the morality of the war, but more often than not, the film is more concerned with showing how the possibility of going to war affects not just the young men going off to fight it, but the men responsible for trying to teach them how to survive. It still doesn’t make it a good movie, but at least it tries to take an original approach to well-worn material.

Matt Wedge is a writer and film critic currently doing time in the suburbs of Connecticut.

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