Richard Linklater is a master of capturing time and its effect on human beings. Be it between several of his films (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight) or even within a singular work (Boyhood), the passing of years in all its joys, sorrows and complexities – the sort of abstracts that most directors would find unfilmable – is Linklater’s bread & butter. With his latest, a post-Iraq War drama set in the immediate aftermath of the invasion, he sets himself a lofty new bullseye: the passage of time since someone else's work, one that tackled a similar subject forty years prior: Hal Ashby’s 1973 Vietnam drama The Last Detail.
Last Flag Flying is a sequel in spirit, but more importantly in meta-text. Its lead characters are altered, in some cases drastically (author of both novels Darryl Ponicsan joins in this film’s writing) but in Linklater’s latest, the specific details of Ashby’s film are but memories in the distance. Where Jack Nicholson’s “Badass” Buddusky and Otis Young’s Richard "Mule" Mulhall once escorted Randy Quaid’s Larry Meadows to Naval prison for a petty crime, the events that underscore this story echo through the decades in a different fashion. Some things change – Bryan Cranston puts on his Nicholson hat as Sal Nealon, Laurence Fishburne plays Richard “The Mauler” Mueller, Steve Carell plays Larry “Doc” Shepherd, and America’s war has moved to Iraq – yet so much stays the same.
Gone is Larry’s petty penny-pinching and lengthy escort to prison as backstory, at least as the prime focus of the three men’s past. Whatever his transgressions, the bond shared by these Vietnam vets has been altered to suit the story at hand and the concerns of our time. Doc has lost his son in Baghdad, so he tracks down his old buddies at a bar and a church, each man’s refuge from their torrid past. While the film may as well be its own separate entity, it shifts the needle of wartime consciousness away from Larry’s life yet un-lived to what little life Larry Jr. got to live before his untimely demise. More pertinently, it shifts its focus to American militarism itself, breaking down its mythic allure whilst investigating the very core of why that allure might be a necessary façade, at least after the fact. It’s an oddity of a war film, in that it attempts to be both anti-war and pro-soldier in the same breath, but it balances that bizarre burden admirably even if it spends the rest of its time meandering.
It doesn’t meander entirely without aim though. The relationship these men once shared and now work to rekindle is the film’s very backbone, and its stellar performances see it through. Carrell’s quiet resilience punctuates each and every scene. His eyes say more than words ever could, even as he stares out an Amtrak window while his friends do most of the talking. When he does speak, he’s usually on the brink of tears, having lost all that was dear to him to a country whose honesty he now calls into question. On one shoulder lies the devil of his journey, Cranston’s foul-mouthed Sal. His drinking problem contributes to him cutting through bullshit, but it also means he finds his way around polite decorum. On the other shoulder sits Fishburne’s unfortunately under-served Mueller, something of a one-note pastor who sees his alcoholic past in Cranston’s Sal and serves only to facilitate his self-realization. He speaks mostly in psalms and “wise” sayings, acting as the moral conscience for Doc at a time when America’s moral center finds itself in crisis. Fishburne brings both charm and gravitas to the role regardless of who it exists to serve, code-switching between the man he’s become and the boy he once was around his sailor-mouthed chums, as he attempts to find a healthy medium between falling back on his old ways and turning his back on his past entirely.
Both time and truth take center stage for the trio, as they wrestle not only with the lies their government has told them about heroism in Iraq, but with the lies they themselves have had to uphold all these years. The truth becomes relative depending on the source and intent, which is perhaps the film’s most complex statement. A lie about why American soldiers died is not necessarily the same as a lie about how they died, and while national and personal narratives often blur together in that regard, the latter is all some people have when they’ve lost someone. The question of whether or not Larry ought to give his son a military funeral is pivotal to this moral debate, and it’s navigated poignantly with the idea that while national and the personal can often arrive in the same packaging, they can also be fundamentally separated by intent. A soldier may be a tool of war, and that war may even be horrifically misguided, but the culture of militarism need not be tied to propaganda at all times. A military funeral is still a funeral behind all the pomp and circumstance.
The film is at its most watchable when Cranston, Carrell and Fishburne spend time with Larry Jr.’s best friend en route to an uncertain funeral. J. Quinton Johnson’s Washington was present when the young soldier was killed, and he bears the responsibility of bringing him home and burying him in his uniform. The trio becomes a quartet as they each reminisce about their highs and lows, discussing all the things that have stayed the same even in the world of cellphones and the worldwide web. The wars have not, nor has the political dishonesty behind them, but neither has the culture of brotherhood that exists alongside them.
Last Flag Flying may not fully coalesce, at times uncertain about what it has to say about war and those who eventually partake in it (the film cannot help but fall on the side of false narratives that glorify militarism, even if it attempts to place them in different categories), but it endears us to its characters all the same. The journey they take may be weighed down by a single coffin that stands in for all the rest, but that they manage to find opportunities to laugh till they cry is a glimmer of much-needed optimism in an America at war with itself – though once that war is over, the introspection about its wars elsewhere may need a little more clarity.