By: Henry J. Fromage (Three Beers) –
Richard Linklater could pretty much have written his own check for any idea he had after the stunning success of Boyhood, but curiously he chose to direct a semi-sequel to a moderately successful 1973 film.
Weep for the lost art of video sleeves.
Last Flag Flying catches up with the principal characters of The Last Detail 30 years later, as Larry (then- Randy Quaid, now- Steve Carrell) comes into Sal’s (then- Jack Nicholson as Buddusky, now- Bryan Cranston) hole-in-the-wall bar and convinces him to drive and find now-pastor Mueller (then- Otis Young as Mulhall, now- Laurence Fishburn). It turns out his son has died in Iraq, and he’d like the buddies who once escorted him to military prison to now come with him as he claims his coffin.
Richard Linklater attempts to walk a tricky line of paying a homage to the original film while adapting a later quasi-sequel by the author of that film’s source, James Ponicsan. Between Linklater and Ponicsan, it was clearly determined that there would be more thematic resonance if certain details, like the length of time Larry was in the brig (from 8 years to 2 now) and even their branch of the military (Navy to Marines) was tweaked, and the characters’ names are not even (quite) the same. This annoys at first, but as the author and director’s master plan reveals itself, that fades.
Last Flag Flying is a film about how one service generation’s memories of a fucked-up foreign war without seeming motivation nor clear end reflect on another’s, and by extension, ours, 14 years after the 2003 setting of this film and still boots firmly on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s also a meditation on nostalgia and the passage of time like nearly all of Linklater’s films are at its core, and a turf war between distrust of the government and the military and respect for the men who serve, as well as a between the value of facing the nasty truth of war and the illogical things that happen in it and the value of comforting a loved one with half-truths or even outright lies instead of revealing that ugly truth.
Not everyone dies a hero, but you ain’t telling mama Cicely Tyson that.
Basically, this is another very Linklater script that should get its fair share of recognition, and the cast displays great chemistry, comedic timing, and camaraderie even if it’s not easy for these contrasting personalities to always get along or even particularly like each other sometimes. The movie gets great mileage out of Fishburn’s priestly but still rough and tumble if forced mien and Cranston’s live-wire alcoholic Sal. Cranston clearly had great fun playing an aged version of young and garrulous Jack Nicholson’s Oscar-nominated original role, and might be in the conversation himself in a few months. J. Quinton Johnson makes his mark among this storied cast as well playing the soldier on detail this time- minding his best friend’s body as it makes its way home.
It’s Carrell who’s the heart and soul of the film, though, and while underplayed and quietly very of a piece with his usual persona, his performance is what gets you in the end.
The way the debate about burying Lary’s son in his uniform or his decidedly civilian graduation suit debate is resolved undercuts what the whole film had been building towards, it seems. It involves at least Sal acting completely out of character, removes what little agency Larry’s character had, and strangely neuters what could have been a perhaps fittingly acerbic finale to a film that to this point had many very conscientious objections to such a display.
*Spoilers to the extent possible in a Richard Linklater film*
That’s what makes the final reading of Larry’s son’s letter almost come off like fully endorsed military propaganda. I can see the argument that the son is doing what Larry, Mueller, and Sal finally swallow their perhaps selfish guilt and do with their old friend’s mother, but it’s one thing to suggest the comforting lie is sometimes better, and it’s quite another to end your generally anti-war film with a rah-rah sacrifice for your country one to comfort the olds with.
Last Flag Flying doesn’t punch as hard as it could of in the end, but maybe that’s the point of this otherwise quite thought-provoking and entertaining sadly multi-generational soldiers’ story.
Last Flag Flying (2017) Drinking Game
Take a Drink: every time Bryan Cranston does
Take a Drink: for references to Vietnam
Take a Drink: for new forms of transportation
Take a Drink: for obvious patriotic or anti-patriotic speeches
Do a Shot: for full-handed candy grabs
Do a Shot: every time you see Saddam Hussein