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Last Flag Flying film review: Richard Linklater’s old-timer road movie is anti-war and pro-friendship

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The basic editing technique ‘cutting for continuity’ is as much about images we see as the space between them. If a shot is presented of a person about to ascend a flight of stairs, and the next one reveals that person at the top of them, we understand these images are connected. There is no mystery or intrigue about the bit removed from the middle, which has been taken away in the name of narrative efficiency. In the films of writer/director Richard Linklater, however, those gaps can be compelling. They can span not just seconds or minutes, but years and even decades. They take place not only inside sequences, but also between entire films.

Linklater famously revisited two friends and would-be lovers (played by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) in his wonderful, warm-hearted Before trilogy, commencing with Before Sunrise in 1995 then moving on to Before Sunset in 2004 and Before Midnight in 2013. The director shot his superb coming-of-age drama Boyhood over 12 years, capturing a fictitious boy’s formative years without casting multiple actors. His latest film, the middle-aged road movie Last Flag Flying, is a ‘spiritual sequel’ to The Last Detail, director Hal Ashby’s 1973 comedy-drama about a trio of navy men played by Jack Nicholson, Randy Quaid and Otis Young.

The characters’ names have been changed, but they are in effect the same people: now Bryan Cranston as Sal, Steve Carell as Doc and Laurence Fishburne as Mueller. Reconnecting for the first time in decades, a crestfallen Doc arrives at Sal’s dive bar, hoping his old buddies will help him bury his son – a marine killed in the Iraq War (the story takes place in 2003). When Sal asks how Doc tracked him down, and is told that “you can find anybody on the internet these days,” a chain of ageing-men-coming-to-terms-with-a-changing-world banter is set in motion, spanning subjects including Eminem and mobile phones.

Sal is happy-go-lucky, eager to attend the proverbial opening of an envelope. But it takes Mueller some convincing. He is now a Reverend, wary of fraternising with these people, who evoke memories of an experimental youth (including drug-taking while serving in Vietnam) that he renounced long ago.

Last Flag Flying is, like most of Linklater’s films, a humanistic work with a slight and unprepossessing way about it.

Cranston’s performance begins in Nicholson pantomime: the erratic demeanour, rat-a-tat laughter, eyebrow craning and non-conformist attitude. It mellows into a space that feels more lived in; more his. Carell plays Doc so dejected and downcast he seems to shrink into his clothes. Fishburne’s performance is contrived to provide dramatic friction, but his character rings true. Mueller compares the respect and adoration of his congregation with the impoliteness of old friends who think they can see right through him; no prizes for guessing which he is more comfortable with.

Last Flag Flying is, like most of Linklater’s films, a humanistic work, with a slight and unprepossessing way about it. In addition to the story of three friends reconnecting, it is about losing and finding, and finding and losing, faith in higher powers and purposes. The screenplay, co-written by Linklater and Darryl Ponicsan (author of the novel The Last Detail) explores these themes through Mueller’s devotion to God, and Doc’s resentment of the government for allowing his son to die. Sal is the person who plays devil’s advocate, or the deliverer of the bald truth, depending how you look at it – pressing Mueller about why God would allow massacres, and expressing to Sal a belief that the government were never in the business of caring for people.

It is also a film about the ways in which appreciating the past and coming to terms with it aren’t the same thing. Should Doc inspect the body of his son, even though the sight may be hideous? He is warned that what he sees he will not be able to ‘unsee’. The film raises other questions that discuss comfort versus truth, and to what extent somebody like Sal will pursue the ‘whole truth and nothing but the truth’ ethos. Does it extend to all circumstances, or are there situations when even he would suggest rose-tinted glasses?

Linklater loves his characters (here and in all his films) and gives them a lot of rope. The trio’s ageing man yakkety yak, which is amiable but waffling, pulls Last Flag Flying away from its most interesting and prickliest themes, letting it drift along as a story of people reconnecting.

It would be too much to say the film is like spending time with old friends, even for those who’ve seen The Last Detail (which is not necessary to appreciate this one). But that kind of pleasantness sets the tone. Given what has happened in these people’s lives, their challenges and transformations, it is not the characters or actors who limit the film’s scope for drama but the writer and director, who insist on a certain kind of softness. It is not surprising, given Linklater’s oeuvre, that the film is more pro-friendship than anti-war.

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2 responses to “Last Flag Flying film review: Richard Linklater’s old-timer road movie is anti-war and pro-friendship

  1. Just to add a third and far different opinion, I did not see this as an anti-war film, not at all. The film begins as if that might happen: three ex-marines going to pick up the casket of one of their sons, killed in Iraq. While at the Dover facility, the three men grow angry because the government has lied to them.

    Lied about the war? Lied about weapons of mass destruction? Oil? No. The only government lies being examined here are the gentle lies meant to comfort the families of the dead. These are the usual lies about dying heroically, instantaneously, painlessly, and being admired by the commander and beloved by his comrades. Who can really object to those lies?

    In an actual anti-war film, the circumstances of the death would support an anti-war point of view, or at least some cognitive dissonance. The marine would have been doing something violent that we Americans might not feel good about, or the film might mention the vulnerability of civilians.

    But the circumstances in this film are ludicrously opposite, and insidious. A Pentagon PR expert could not have dreamed up more useful propaganda: the marine was on a mission to bring school supplies to a village school (American generosity!), and was shot from behind (cowardly enemy!) by a child (Trust none of them!). This last detail really angered me, as myths about Vietnamese tykes hiding grenades helped rationalize disregard for civilian casualties when I was there. American films about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan show similar thinking, as I recall.

    The three men get over their anger with the Marine Corps, and actually put on marine uniforms for the funeral service. They are mostly nostalgic about their time in Viet Nam, even the recollections of a brothel that seems to have been a child brothel. The only grim note is a failure by one of the marines to act like a marine. If these three veterans come to understand that the government is wise and misunderstood, that is what the audience is expected to believe, too.

    One more detail: even the dead soldier is not upset by dying in a war that many Republicans now admit was a mistake. His father had planned to bury his son in civilian clothes, but the son’s last letter asks that he be buried in his Marine Corp uniform. Trust me, soldiers’ letters home, especially letters left with a friend to be sent in the case of death, are full of lies meant to comfort the family. Soldiers and the government can be forgiven or even praised for offering comforting untruths, but this film’s makers cannot be easily forgiven for its anesthetizing, feel-good flag salute and war nostalgia. A fine director, yes, but not a fine film.

  2. As I saw it – with no benefit of the comparisons you draw Luke. A shock to find a US film as nuanced and clearly anti-jingoistic as this – to put it frankly. Bravo Director Linklater – and fine performances from every actor!

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