As Mark Twain reputedly said, history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.
I thought about this aphorism more than once during Last Flag Flying, Richard Linklater’s alternately amusing and somber heartstring-tugger about the victims of America’s misbegotten wars. Iraq was hardly a repeat of Vietnam, but it rhymed with bitter lucidity: two bloody occupations of nations that were no threat to us, fought for fraudulent or unsubstantiated or unclear reasons, with the complicity of multiple presidencies and political parties.
Last Flag Flying is set in 2003, the first year of the Iraq invasion. And while the bipartisan pessimism toward this military quagmire had not yet permeated the populace, the movie’s veterans of Vietnam, like Bryan Cranston’s salty barkeep Sal Nelson, can read the tea leaves. When he’s not self-medicating with alcohol, his observations about the wars’ brutal rhymes are painfully lucid.
The same can be said of Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), who served with Sal in ’Nam. Though he found God and works as a Baptist preacher, it only takes an hour in Sal’s company to dredge up memories of a more nihilistic time, and to allow for a few cynical, foul-mouthed bromides about the current occupation.
“Doc” Shepherd (Steve Carell), a soft-spoken former sailor who spent a tumultuous period with Sal and Richard in the early 1970s, doesn’t share their bruising clarity about two governments callously lying us into wars of choice. But he’ll get close: The most important journey in this elegiac road film is Doc’s interior one, as the protagonist in a kind of mid-40s coming-of-age narrative.
If the characters’ names seem at all familiar, it’s because they first appeared in The Last Detail, the Darryl Ponicsan novel turned Hal Ashby film remembered today as a benchmark of antiwar disillusionment. Ponicsan penned its surprising sequel, Last Flag Flying, in 2005, and co-scripted this adaptation with Linklater.
In the prior movie, Doc, then a convicted 19-year seaman, enjoyed a few days of hedonism and enlightenment under the care of signalman Sal and gunner’s mate Richard en route to serving a sentence in the Navy prison for theft. In the new film, it’s Doc who has corralled the older veterans, whom he hasn’t seen in nearly 25 years, for a solemn purpose. His son, a Marine, has just died in Iraq, and he wants his ’Nam shipmates to accompany him to Dover Air Force Base and bring the boy’s body back to Doc’s home in Portsmouth.
While devotees of The Last Detail may find insightful Easter eggs buried in the new feature, Last Flag Flying is, for all intents and purposes, a standalone feature. Riffing on the anarchic textures of the original, it proceeds with the initial trappings of a low-key caper, as this ragtag trio deploys cars, U-Haul trucks and trains to transport a coffin under the disapproving gaze of the military establishment. Sal relishes the camaraderie, and the escape it provides from his dilapidated bar, while the reticent Richard finds that his every opportunity to leave the group and return home is foiled by circumstances. (One of which, involving an example of post-9/11 profiling, feels a bit contrived, though not inconceivable.)
Last Flag Flying both is and isn’t a trademark Linklater film. It may be the closest he’s come to directing an awards-bait prestige picture. Yet the walking-and-talking intimacies and delicate genre shifts of his best work are embedded in the movie’s DNA. Like so many Linklater films, this character study moves at a controlled ramble, where scripted exchanges of deep-rooted philosophies have the feel of shaggy improvisations. Where other directors may lurch, Linklater glides gracefully between comedy and tragedy, poignancy and raffish wit.
One wonders if Jack Nicholson, who hasn’t acted in a movie since 2010, was approached to reprise his role as Sal in The Last Detail. It’s hard to imagine him topping Cranston’s lived-in authenticity, where crusty charms mask existential unease. He makes an old chestnut like “I think I’m getting a little too old for this s–t” seem like a newly minted epiphany. Sal is selectively racist but forgivably so, thanks to the humanism with which Cranston imbues the character.
Fishburne expertly embodies the long-suffering Christian square to Sal’s angular atheist, and Carell expands on the dramatic bona fides he expressed so astonishingly in Foxcatcher. He is a canvas of negative emotional space whose restraint paints a vivid picture of grief, acceptance and, ultimately, hope.
Linklater and Ponicsan’s script weaves in contemporaneous events and commentary, with the characters’ journey playing against the backdrop of the capture of Saddam Hussein. This inspires ruminations on the WMD fallacy and the lack of military vision from George W. Bush, whom Sal dismisses as “the cheerleader.” Truth be told, braver films shot and released during the early Aughts took similar positions, at more political peril. It’s all too easy, from the benefit of hindsight, to lambast decisions now universally accepted as catastrophic.
But without these dialogues, we might not have the rhyme. And we might not have the transformative moment, late in the film, when the men visit the mother (Cicely Tyson) of a soldier who died in their unit, and Sal is forced to confront the gray in his otherwise binary mindset of righteous truthfulness, growing a little in the process.
The Last Detail’s stylish ’70s existentialism never demanded a sequel. But as a model for healing, Last Flag Flying provides the semblance of closure we didn’t know we needed.
LAST FLAG FLYING. Cast: Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston, Laurence Fishburne, J. Quinton Johnson; Director: Richard Linklater; Distributor: Lionsgate; Rating: R; Opens: Friday at most area theaters