Last Flag Flying (2017)

Directed by Richard Linklater

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Richard Linklater has a habit of making films that you just want to sit with.  Last Flag Flying is another one of those films.  It’s never outright funny or even tragic, considering the subject material, but it feels, I don’t know, human?

The tragedy comes at the beginning, before we know these characters who know each other so well, and the tone of the film doesn’t change much from beginning to end.  These characters, Vietnam veterans, have a shorthand with each other that might also seem off putting at the start, as if it’s forced, but by the end it feels incredibly natural.  It just takes us some time to catch up.

The film as a whole is occasionally a bit uneven, and at times the plot movements feel a little heavy-handed for a movie that’s mostly just about people talking.  At the same time, a movie like this can slowly grow on you so that by the end you find yourself disagreeing with all the criticisms you accumulated through the viewing.

Set in 2003, Last Flag Flying is a road trip movie, as Linklater himself as noted, but one that deals with war, death, grief and hardly any driving.  We follow Doc (Steve Carell) as he reconnects with old war buddies Sal (Bryan Cranston) and Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne).  Doc has just learned that his son died in the Iraq war, and he wants his old friends to accompany him as he picks up the body.

Having also lost his wife to breast cancer in the last year, Doc is having a hard time, and his friends agree to join him mostly out of pity.  Sal is an alcoholic who runs a failing dive bar, and Richard has become a reverend.  The two of them butt heads and often act as the devil and the angel on Doc’s shoulders.

Through his grief for his son’s unnecessary death, particularly after learning of the real circumstances regarding his death, Doc expresses his own frustration for the lies that got the U.S. involved in both Vietnam and Iraq.  The film has a lot to say about the nature of war, though it says it briefly.  For the most part we focus on the brotherhood between these three friends that remains despite thirty years apart.

And that’s what Linklater is most concerned with.  A common theme through so many of his movies is just a conversation between two people.  Sometimes those conversations are more like an exchange of monologues, and other times the conversations are more meaningless on the surface, but that meaninglessness is what gives the moment meaning.  It’s sometimes about what we say, and other times it’s just about how we say it.

One of the best scenes of the film involves the three friends remembering a shared moment from one of the quieter moments of their time in Vietnam.  It’s not always an easy task to show people laughing at themselves and having a great time without us viewing it from a distance, but Linklater puts us right in the moment, and it’s damn hard not to laugh with the group.  It’s a moment of humor, capitalizing on some of Carell’s known comedic chops, but we’re laughing because we’re just experiencing the moment with these characters.  It feels so real, like the type of joking amongst your own friends that leads most or all of you to double over laughing, and it’s something that I think is incredibly hard to capture in a scripted format.

I will say that I didn’t fully buy into the characters from the start.  Cranston’s Sal seems a little too characterized.  He has a certain drunken swagger and a foul mouth, and at the start he comes across more as a familiar archetype.  By the end, though, I was taken with his subtle transformation, and all his quirks, like with Richard and Doc, felt very lived in.  They felt like real characters, real people.

There are a few touching moments throughout the film, but the plot can be a little uneven as it gets us there.  Peppered in throughout the conversations are quick allusions to a man who they watched die during the Vietnam War.  We don’t understand the full consequences of their actions, their guilt, until later in the film.  And in a brief detour from the A plot, they visit their fallen brother’s mother, intent on telling her the truth of how her son died.  Instead Sal has a change of heart, and instead of remaining so militant that we lie about the supposed heroism of certain military deaths, he confirms her misconceptions about how her son died.  She was told he saved the lives of multiple men, just as Doc was told a lie that his son died heroically when he learned he was instead caught off guard, shot in the back of the head.

Some Linklater films feel plotless.  You can’t identify the act breaks or the plot mechanisms, and the effect is that his films feel much more lifelike in their own way.  The Before movies are just a series of conversations, all in a condensed time period.  Boyhood famously takes place over twelve years with no big plot points other than his physical and mental growth.  Waking Life is all just a dream, and something like Everybody Wants Some!! makes you think it’s following a certain genre path but never falls into genre traps.  When you think two characters are about to fight, they make up.  When you think someone might get in trouble for breaking a rule established early in the story, they don’t.  His stories deviate from the narrative drama we’ve grown accustomed to in movies but don’t usually experience in everyday life.

Last Flag Flying, though, does bend to some of those typical plot points.  There are set ups and pay offs, like the decision to tell someone what really happened versus to let them believe a comforting lie.  There are other mirrored moments like that which make the film feel burdened by its own medium.  The mostly natural conversations are occasionally loaded with dialogue that is necessary to move the story forward or to be mentioned long enough that we remember it later on.  Some of the dialogue carries a narrative responsibility unlike many of his other films in which the dialogue is nothing more than an expression of a character’s view of the world.

So Last Flag Flying feels like some sort of compromise.  It’s half a Linklater film and half of a more conventional story that tries to make you feel good when you’re supposed to feel good and tries to tug at the heartstrings when you’re supposed to tug at the heartstrings.  These are more of the heavy-handed moments that I think weigh the film down.

Still, it’s somehow a nice hangout movie, like many of his other works.  The chances that you enjoy the characters depends on whether you enjoy their demographic.  There are more than a few jokes about them being old (involving Eminem, cell phones, etc.) that feel a little like low hanging fruit.  The best conversations and moments come from when they recall old memories and mostly ignore the plot constructing itself around them.

The film is loosely a sequel to 1973’s The Last Detail (Hal Ashby).  Both films were based on books written by Darryl Ponicsan who also has a co-screenwriting credit here.  In each case, naval men travel domestically with another soldier.  They are both war films, in some way, that mostly deal with the discussion of war and the types of people it attracts and/or spits out.  What I remember most about that 1973 film is having food poisoning, but that’s beside the point.

Jack Nicholson played a similar character to the one played by Cranston here, and Carell plays a character similar to the one played by Randy Quaid.  In each case, a more corrupted, hardened soldier influences a younger, more impressionable soldier.  And like in The Last Detail, two of the soldiers are almost like parents to the third, with Fishburne the other parent here.

So it’s a familiar dynamic but set during another publicly criticized war.  In some ways just this movie’s (and novel’s) existence is the point.  The times are different, but the situation remains the same.  People are dying when they don’t need to die.

Up Next: My Life as a Zucchini (2016), The Killing of a Sacred Dear (2017), Some Like It Hot (1959)

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