'Last Flag Flying'
During the press tour for ‘Last Flag Flying’, Richard Linklater liked to crack a joke about how this is as close to a war film as he’ll ever make. He’s not wrong. Though the movie doesn’t contain any scenes shot on a battlefield much less any combat, the long series of rambling conversations about military and morality dig as deeply into the concept of war as any film ever made.
At the same time, the filmmaker is never so bold as to provide answers to his many questions. Linklater’s cinematic focus remains the art of conversation and the ways in which it reveals character, but here he tackles such grand and tricky subject matter that those long dialogue scenes feel like a balancing act that only a truly gifted filmmaker could pull off. It’s a special little movie.
It all starts on a quiet night. “Doc” Shepherd (Steve Carell) stumbles into a bar owned by Sal (Bryan Cranston). As always, Sal is ranting about something with a few drinks under his belt, so lost in his own thought that he barely notices an old friend. It turns out that Doc and Sal served in Vietnam together and haven’t seen each other since. They get drunk and the next morning take a road trip to see their missing war/drinking buddy, Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), who is now a preacher. Only once they’re all together does Doc reveal the reason for the sudden reunion. His son just died in the Iraq war, and he’s also recently lost his wife. He doesn’t have anyone close to him left, certainly not anyone who understand the pains of war like his old buddies. He asks them to accompany him on a cross-country trip to pick up his son’s body and have him buried. They reluctantly agree, and through their road trip’s many inevitable digressions, touch on subjects high and low on the topics of war, the military, life, and death. It’s tough stuff, but is told in such breezy and frequently hilarious conversations that the heaviness rarely registers until you’re suddenly overcome with intense emotion.
Although ‘Last Flag Flying’ isn’t a sequel, it shares a certain DNA with Hal Ashby’s ‘The Last Detail‘. Both films are adapted from novels by Darryl Ponicsan, both feature roughly the same three protagonists (portrayed previously by Jack Nicholson, Randy Quaid and the late Otis Young), and both are road trips rooted in long seriocomic conversations about the military and war. Still, this is at best a companion piece. At one point, Linklater planned to make his film with Nicholson, Quaid and Morgan Freeman, but it fell apart. Even if that had happened, it would have been even more confusing given that the narratives don’t quite match up. However, the spirit of ‘The Last Detail’ is here in big ways (tone and themes) and small (Cranston is kind of doing Nicholson without doing an impression, even wearing a variation on his outfit from ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’, if that makes sense). It’s important, but also not. The film plays as well if not better without knowledge of ‘The Last Detail’, but offers a fascinating movie nerd meditation on a cult classic for those who care too look.
Of course, it’s more important what Linklater and his cast are doing with their story than whatever 44-year-old movie they may or may not be sequelizing. The good news is that’s something special as well. Even more than most Linklater projects, this one really takes its time sitting with the characters and getting to know them before getting to the point. The film is defined by three men. Cranston marches and poses and rattles out dialogue like an alpha male who once commanded a crowd, but is now desperate for anyone to listen. There’s a tragedy to him and the performance, even if the character never sees it. Laurence Fishburne plays a man who’s seen dark lows, but grew wise and grew up. He gives a poised and graceful performance that’s hiding insecurities. Carell, on the other hand, plays a sweet and innocent soul perpetually shoved through shit and hardship. He tries to always see the best and remain positive, but knows pain more than either of his more cynical partners. The performances are all brilliant and fire off each other for surprising depth and humor.
The discussions Linklater gives his characters vary from small and dismissively comedic dissections of pop culture to large and profound questions about an individual’s role in the military institution and the morality of dying for country. They flow naturally, never feeling like the big ideas are forced or the little ones are trite. He uses the characters to explore flaws in masculinity and whether it’s possible to be pro-soldier while still anti-war. The questions and concerns come from the muddy waters of the Iraq war in the 2000s (long discussions of flip phones amusingly date the movie now), but they not only remain relevant, there’s something extra unsettling about the fact that these issues and the war that raised them remain in the public conscious a decade later. The film is both of an era and about broader things. There’s so much to consider, but it all plays out in small scenes and character moments, rarely forcing ideas and ideologies. It all fits in the piece and it all serves an emotional purpose.
Given the subject matter, it should be no surprise that ‘Last Flag Flying’ is often a difficult and depressing movie. Linklater does his best to skirt the most melodramatic impulses the story could have taken and level it off with endless conversational humor. Even so, some moments are devastating. The actors and filmmaker earn the shots at the jugular, which register painfully on viewers. The movie is a tough sit at times, but it examines important themes that have been delved into many times in the past from fresh angles and perspectives. Linklater might not be experimenting as wildly as he has in titles like ‘Waking Life’ or ‘Boyhood’, but he’s no less ambitious. The film raises difficult ideas and emotions from a subject that’s rarely considered in shades deeper than black and white. ‘Last Flag Flying’ is a beautiful and heartbreaking work executed with such subtlety that it will likely take years for most audiences to notice. That’s fine. Most Linklater movies take a while to rise to the surface.