Richard Linklater’s new ‘war film’ Last Flag Flying tells the story of three Vietnam veterans thirty years later dealing with the war.
New York Film Festival has its opening night tonight, and the film with the honored role of kicking off the festival is Richard Linklater’s Last Flag Flying, referred to by the director himself as his ceremonial ‘war movie.’ The film, starring Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston and Laurence Fishburne, tells the story of three Vietnam veterans thirty years later dealing with the war.
Anyone who knows Linklater might have some reservations about that – the director of Dazed and Confused (1993), Boyhood (2014), and the Before Trilogy has never been known for his action sequences. Often putting lackadaisical conversations between unambitious characters’ center-stage, his production company is even called Detour, which doesn’t lend itself well to a high-tension plot. Luckily, Linklater’s new movie is hardly about the war at all – there are no battles or physical conflict (barring one, perhaps 50-yard police chase) and all the characters instead embark on a road trip. The roadies just so happen to all be Vietnam vets determined to bury one of their sons, himself a victim of Iraq.
Last Flag Flying is co-written with military novelist Darryl Ponicsan and based on his novel of the same name, itself a sort of spiritual sequel of The Last Detail a book of his which Hal Ashby turned into a 1973 feature, starring Jack Nicholson.
Although set in very different times (Last Flag Flying takes place in 2003, at the height of the Iraq war) both stories battle with similar demons: the concept of loss, and the struggle for individuality in the strict culture of the United States Military. The three protagonists of Linklater’s film are a good example of just how far-reaching the imprint of militarism can go.
The story begins when Larry (Steve Carrell) turns up at Sal’s, a bar run by Sal himself (Bryan Cranston). Old war pals now long apart, Sal feels an obligation to follow Larry without even knowing where he’s going, and the two find themselves on Sunday morning in the church of Reverend Richard Mueller (Lawrence Fishburne), the last of their old Vietnam trifecta. Old loyalties confront very new realities when Larry finally announces his purpose for orchestrating the reunion, to have some help in going to see the body of his son, Larry Jr., newly shipped back from Baghdad. Quiet to the point of meekness, and still portraying a prepubescent awkwardness in middle age, one gets the feeling that he didn’t have too many other people to ask.
Linklater on his ‘war movie’: “Guys thirty years later dealing with the war, we never talk about that.”
Carrell’s long history of humor makes it something of a hurdle to play the straight man (so many, in my generation especially, will forever see him in the role of Michael Scott from The Office) but he earns his place as the force of the film when we realize that his meekness is an integral part of his character, now as in Vietnam, and not the set-up to some 40-Year-Old Virgin joke.
Though a comedy in many ways, the film is Linklater’s type of comedy, one where the characters all have their affectations, and it’s your job to watch them. Mueller and Sal, invariably take up the roles of angel and devil atop Larry’s broken shoulders, often turning the pining ambiguous desires of a grieving father into logistical choices. One gets an echo of Vietnam in this setup: as the trio tells it, Mueller and Sal were Marines at the time, while Larry was a skimpy Navy man who just wanted to hang out with the tough guys.
Their adventures to Dover, to pick up Larry Jr’s body, and the back has a carousing feel, largely thanks to Sal. While the U.S. government agrees to move to the body to any cemetery at their expense, they strongly urge Larry to let his son rest with honor at Arlington, a choice he soon rejects when he learned – through Sal – that the military lied about the nature of his death. Larry demands the body moved to rest near his home in New Hampshire, and the government eventually agrees to take it by train – but not before Sal orchestrates a maneuver to take it manually, by U-Haul. When he goes to pick up the truck, refusing to divulge what they’ll be carrying and paying out of an envelope of cash, their cooked up scheme ends where it started; the U-Haul agent reports them all as potential terrorists.
So it goes in a Detour production. There’s a great sense of “Anyway…” as the film transitions logistics of its narrative promise. It’s all secondary to the good conversations along the journey, and the joy of watching Sal’s alcoholic rapaciousness meet Mueller’s straight and narrow path as they argue over Larry’s head. Bryan Cranston is outstanding in his vitality as a hot-blooded soldier who never grew up, but Fishburne matches him measure for measure. Their travels occupy a very specific period of political time (among other things, the capture of Saddam Hussein), but, like most marines, they voice the ambiguities of patriotism. The one conversation which seems to weave through all other’s is the questioning, by each veteran, of what it was all for. Larry isn’t just musing but frantic on this matter, and one sees how similarly the mission of Iraq encounters the meaninglessness of Vietnam.
Linklater: “That’s my view of the world – tragic and comic right on top of each other.”
Linklater’s never been to war, but Ponicsan has. In fact, Last Flag Flying was a completed script when Linklater picked it up, in 2005, and promised to do something with it for the last fifteen years. He held onto the project because it interested him, as he said in an exuberant talkback this afternoon, “Guys thirty years later dealing with the war, we never talk about that.” Noting the interplay on comedy in an overall very tragic story, Linklater acknowledged that this film’s story fits him well because “that’s my view of the world – tragic and comic right on top of each other.”
I’ve watched Linklater’s career through the beautiful revelry of his characters, but this is the first work of his to have moved me so close to tears.
In many ways, it feels like a new beginning for him, not merely with the actors, or the completeness of the plot – Last Flag Flying bears the greatest sense of vitality in any movie of his I’ve seen so far, that the story being told isn’t just beautiful but crucial. This comes not only from the impact and rumination of death (most of his previous work has always felt like a reckoning with life), but also the sense that he’s talking about something we don’t hear about elsewhere.
It’s true that we never hear about veterans thirty years after their wars, and even as America turns its attention to Vietnam in Ken Burns’ new documentary series, the feeling of having firmly moved on is still a hindrance to our cultural conversation.
Last Flag Flying is evidence enough that old memories still have something to offer us, and it speaks to the danger of not listening. Those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it.