War tends to be depicted only a few ways in fiction. It is either a brave adventure or a soul-crushing Hell. A great honor of noble sacrifice or a cynical waste by so many calculating politicians. Yet Richard Linklater appears to be asking with his latest film: Why can’t it be both? For make no mistake, Linklater considers the tender and surprisingly mercurial Last Flag Flying to be a war story, even if it’s about a war that ended more 30 years before his film begins.
While technically the opening night film for the New York Film Festival, this picture is as far away from the glitz and glamor of ballroom galas as its characters are from the Vietnam jungles that came to define their lives. Whether they recall it as either a glorious adventure or a soul-crushing “dark period,” war still rushes through them and their movie like a melancholic river. And there’s more than a hint of the romanticism and honor that came with being Marines, wearing that uniform, and standing with their brothers, then and now.
There’s also a humor to it too. They found a way to live with it in “the shit,” and now must live without it as middle-aged adults. They’ll even live with it in a film that is ostensibly a two-hour wake—the prelude before another military funeral for another boy from another war. Not that this stops it from being an occasionally mirthful and always revelatory service.
Last Flag Flying picks up in December 2003 with a war that is still incredibly fresh in American life (its sister conflict in Afghanistan rages on yet), but is now also distant enough for citizens to finally allow some perspective. It’s in this context, as Christmastime nears and Saddam Hussein is captured inside of a spider hole, that Larry “Doc” Shepherd (Steve Carell) walks into a bar. It’s been a long time since he and the bartender Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston) have seen each other’s then-teenage faces. But those old wounds and that familiar brotherhood? Semper fi, they’ll always be.
Sal was apparently a big mouth with an even bigger ego in ‘Nam, and time hasn’t made him any humbler. A lonely drunk with a business he despises, Cranston’s cutup has nothing to lose when Doc proposes a road trip to recruit their other surviving buddy, Mueller (Laurence Fishburne). Not that either is prepared to meet the born again Rev. Richard Mueller, who as a happily married man can barely bring himself to withstand Sal’s cursing. At least while Mueller’s wife is in the room. When the three are alone though? Old rhythms and charms are remembered, which becomes all the more comforting as they head to their real destination.
It wasn’t just nostalgia that’s caused Doc to seek his brothers, nor is it a need for closure about some unspoken event that caused Doc to be the one who spent two years in the brig while the other two lived their lives. No, Doc is here because, in addition to being a newly minted widower, his son was killed in Iraq three days ago. His body is arriving at Dover Air Force Base tonight, and while the U.S. Marines won’t tell him why or how the lad died, the military insists on burying him in Arlington Cemetery. With the president’s best wishes and appreciation for the boy’s service, of course. Doc, however, just wants to take his boy home to be next to his mother, and he is going to need all the help in the world to survive this last battle.
Originally crafted as a late sequel to author Darryl Ponicsan’s The Last Detail novel, Last Flag Flying was reimagined by Ponicsan himself and Linklater for this standalone film that incorporates two generations of soldiers, and shows that while the times are drastically different, the men who serve are not.
Indeed, there is a tangible anger about the cyclical awfulness of these generation-defining wars. Carell’s Doc drives the story, figuratively and sometimes literally from behind the wheel of a car, with a quiet milquetoast despair at the U.S. government that took two years of his life and has now taken his son whole cloth without a straight answer as to why.
But in spite of its tragic landscape, Linklater paints a film that is funny and sweetly at peace with its characters and the world they’re in. This is obviously aided a great deal by tremendous performances from all three central leads, as well as J. Quinton Johnson. The latter plays Pvt. Washington, the best friend of Doc’s son who now has the unenviable task of watching the body and trying to keep Sal from declaring all out rebellion against the officers of the United States Marine Corps.
The generational contrast between Washington and the older vets eventually blurs, as their war stories are so different yet clearly cut from the same mold. Cranston especially makes a meal out of his most gregarious scenes, playing Sal as a gyrating and cantankerous lothario well past his expiration date. But, personally, Fishburne deserves a special kind of credit for so smoothly bridging the gap between a man of God and a man who has had it up to here with these goddamned knuckleheads he thought he shook off more than a few presidencies ago.
Underneath it all, there is the same poignancy and attention to introspective characters that engulfs all of Linklater’s best movies. These guys are not nearly as loquacious (or deluded) as Jesse and Celeste, nor are they aging in real time. But you see them in all their ages, then and now, as they continue the good fight. This is a movie about men on a mission, only that mission involves a whole lot of talking, drinking, and a few fallen tears.
With its simplicity of purpose, and a renewed camaraderie between its protagonists, Last Flag Flying takes an emotional snapshot of military service in our time, and in that of all others. Oohrah.
Last Flag Flying premiered at the New York Film Festival. It opens on Nov. 3.