The “centerpiece film” from this year’s Woodstock Film Festival, Richard Linklater’s Last Flag Flying, opened in cities nationally last weekend. If you became an avid fan of Bryan Cranston during his long reign as Walter White/Heisenberg on Breaking Bad, you may be looking forward to this new movie with great relish – and you wouldn’t be entirely wrong, as it’s largely a vehicle for his larger-than-life screen persona. Or you may have been wowed by Linklater’s much-lauded time-spanning 2014 opus Boyhood and want very much to see what the director is up to now.
Linklater himself has been reluctant to talk about the fact that Last Flag Flying can be construed as a sequel to Hal Ashby’s bittersweet 1973 movie The Last Detail. Both films were based on novels by Darryl Ponicsan, respectively chronicling incidents involving three Vietnam-era sailors on a spree and the sad circumstances that reunite them 30 years later. Last Flag Flying changes the names slightly, makes two of them Marines and alters the reasons why they had to escort their younger charge to the brig back during the war. But they’re essentially the same characters, with Cranston standing in for Jack Nicholson, Laurence Fishburne for Otis Young and Steve Carell for Randy Quaid.
At the outset of the circa-2002 story, Cranston’s character, Sal, is running (and living in) a bar, and hasn’t changed a bit since he was…Jack Nicholson, basically. In fact, if you take Sal as the main character, this movie could be subtitled Endless Boyhood. He’s a foul-mouthed, misanthropic, utterly unfiltered alcoholic with a sneering quip for every occasion and a compulsion to spare no one the truth, however ugly. When meek, mousy Doc (Carell), the sailor who once took the fall for something not-so-noble that they did together while on extended tours of duty in Nam, shows up at his gin joint, Sal doesn’t even recognize him at first. Doc reconnects Sal with the third of their former trio, Mueller (Fishburne), who has become a preacher and no longer wishes to be reminded of his raunchy younger days, before explaining to both of them why he’s there: Recently widowed, Doc has just lost his son in Iraq and needs company to claim his body and attend his funeral, with honors, at Arlington National Cemetery.
At the airbase, at Sal’s prodding, Doc finds out from his son’s comrade (J. Quinton Johnson) that the young man did not exactly die under the heroic circumstances that had been officially proclaimed. Enraged and grief-stricken, the normally repressed Doc determines to snatch the corpse, take it home to New Hampshire in a rental truck and bury his son there beside his mother. Last Flag Flying is the story of their bizarre road trip, with Mueller and Sal flanking Doc as his good and bad angels. Along the way north, complications of all sorts arise, and we gradually learn more about the escapade that bonded them three decades earlier.
We also get considerable insight into the premise that even guys who totally internalized all the sales pitches about what it means to be a Marine, and take great pride in identifying as such, can simultaneously have nothing but scathing things to say about the pointless wars to which they are assigned and the rationalizations of government officials about why they are necessary. Parallels between Vietnam and Iraq are unsubtly drawn here. It’s the awful shared experience, the battlefront shorthand that only veterans understand, that matters in the long run, this screenplay would have us believe.
This viewer, for one, would have liked to see Linklater and Ponicsan poke more than a toe into the politics of endless war and how the US military as a perennially resupplied, reassigned institution is packaged for unquestioning public consumption. But the three core performances in Last Flag Flying are all compelling and worth a watch, and there’s enough dark, wacky humor to leaven the mostly downbeat storyline. Cranston dominates and is by far the most entertaining up front; Carell’s low-key portrayal of a mild-mannered man who waits far too long to rebel is the one that will crawl under your skin and come back to haunt you afterward.