Richard Linklater Tackles War in Last Flag Flying

The director of Boyhood explores the lives of three Vietnam vets reunited by tragedy.

Richard Linklater has made all kinds of films in his nearly 30-year career as a director and screenwriter, but Last Flag Flying is perhaps his first movie to deal directly with life in the aftermath of war — in this case, both the Vietnam experience and our more recent misadventures in the Middle East. The movie stars Bryan Cranston, Laurence Fishburne and Steve Carell as three Marines who served together in Nam and are reunited again decades later when Carell’s character asks the other two to accompany him on a road trip to the funeral for his son — also a military man who was killed in Iraq.

The movie is loosely based on the novel of the same name by Daryl Ponicsan, who co-wrote the screenplay with Linklater. Ponicsan’s book was a sequel to his 1970 novel The Last Detail, which followed the same characters while on active duty and was itself the basis of a 1973 film starring Jack Nicholson, Randy Quaid and Otis Young. The movie version of Last Flag Flying changes the characters’ names and is not explicitly a sequel, but does cover essentially the same ground and themes, as the three men confront the choices they made during their service and in the long years after it.

“You can’t really make a sequel without the same cast,” says Linklater about the film’s unusual history when we sit down recently in Los Angeles. “I’d say we’re a sequel to this the way The Silence of the Lambs is a sequel to Manhunter. I don’t think you could technically be a sequel if you don’t have the same cast. We never thought about it. We never talked about it.” He adds, “The core, the DNA is the same. These characters are too much fun. That’s what motivated me, anyway. I just liked these guys.”

The characters in the comedy-drama are Marines who served in Vietnam, whereas the trio in the book are Navy men without the Vietnam background. But Linklater says that those details didn’t matter as much as what he saw in their relationships: “The way we bond with people in our lives, that’s pretty profound — I would think especially for people who went through a war together,” he explains. “They’re literally in the trenches together. It’s like that even if you just grow up with somebody, much less if you’re ever on a team together or certainly in a war with somebody . . . this is a portrait of guys who are really very different who still come together in a commonality. There’s that bond and love for one another despite their differences. I thought, ‘That’s a good thing to demonstrate, I think, in this world.’”

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The film also touches on the harsh realities of war, and the uncomfortable fact that so many things about it remain the same whether it’s 1970 or 2017. “Some dynamics you can’t escape,” says Linklater. “War, it’s the grunts in the trenches, the generals at the top, and it just all flows downhill. Our perspective is from the bottom, these guys. The tragedies in both wars, whether it’s Doc’s son or their friend Jimmy Hightower many years ago in Vietnam, are barely a blip on the radar screen. They’re small time, written up, send a medal, process a body, done. No big deal. But they are a big deal. Every death is a big tragedy and they do affect a lot of people.”

That truth is brought home in wrenching fashion during the scene when Carell’s character, Doc, arrives with Cranston’s Sal Nealon and Fishburne’s Richard Mueller at the aircraft hangar where Doc’s son’s coffin awaits. Against the wishes of the commanding officer on duty, Doc demands to open the casket and see his boy’s remains — a potent reminder that for many years, the U.S. government banned even photos of the caskets as they came off the airplane.

“That (ban) so disrespected the sacrifices, I think, of those in the military,” says Linklater. “To not share that, to act like it didn’t happen, to keep it so private. I think it should be shared. We’re all citizens. All this is being done in our names. I think it was eventually lifted just for transparency’s sake. Such a cynical idea to begin with, but it makes sense from their perspective. You need the general population to either be oblivious or for your war, if you’re going to keep prosecuting it. It makes strategic sense, but as citizens we have the right to kind of go, ‘Hey, wait a second. How many lives is this agenda of yours worth? Is it worth your own kid’s life?’”

The film also expresses the view held by many veterans that they are just cogs in a machine, with the three older men asking an enlisted friend of Doc’s son (the excellent J. Quinton Washington) if he knows what his mission is supposed to be. “It’s the big question,” agrees Linklater. “It should always be on the table. What are we there for? You get these idealistic young people or people who are buying in: ‘I’m going over for our freedoms or to save democracy…’ At certain times in our history, you could maybe make that argument, but not lately.”

While the politics of war both then and now are clearly in the backdrop of the film, it’s the characters in the foreground that Linklater is most interested in, and he expresses delight at corralling the three lead actors that he got. “It’s a pretty narrow age range,” he says. “They all had to be in their 50s. Within the age range, it wasn’t a huge spectrum of actors who could even be in this. You just try and go out to the ones you feel could have fun and pull it off and would be right. I was just lucky that I got these three. Everyone just felt at the top of their game, man. It was so fun to work with them. They were just such a great team. Just like old comrades. They were just playing their roles for each other.”

With Last Flag Flying out now and his next film, Where’d You Go, Bernadette (with Cate Blanchett and Kristen Wiig), in post-production, Linklater seems to be on a roll lately: the last six years or so have seen him direct one outstanding film after another, including Bernie, the much-acclaimed Boyhood, Before Midnight and last year’s Everybody Wants Some!!. While he doesn’t feel like he’s hit some sort of new wave of creativity, Linklater admits that he’s on a bit of a hot streak. “I think when you feel like you’re aligned with the industry, you get the films made, and they actually get out there,” he theorizes. “There have been times where you just feel like you’re struggling more with the budgets or the schedules or distribution. It’s interesting maneuvering through, in, and around our industry. I’ve always tried to do different things and tell different stories. I’m just lucky I’ve been able to do it.”

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Last Flag Flying is out now in a limited run and opens in wide release Friday (November 17).