Last Flag Flying is a shrug of a movie, a quiet sigh of no consequence about men who aren’t especially noteworthy. Irrelevance is woven into the film’s DNA, and it’s part of the story’s quiet strength and also its limitation. The latest from director Richard Linklater looks at three guys who were part of our lives, briefly, in the early 1970s in a film called The Last Detail, back when they were full of piss and vinegar. Now, like most people, they’re older and not necessarily wiser—their dreams are smaller and they’re trying to figure out what’s left. They’re the products of one war trying to make sense of a new one. Last Flag Flying isn’t great—a concept like greatness is too highfalutin for a film so bone-dry modest—but its scruffy integrity digs at you, won’t let you quite dismiss it.
Set in 2003, the movie stars Carell as Doc, who was played by an exuberantly boyish Randy Quaid in the original film. He has tracked down Sal (Bryan Cranston), who now runs a bar but has always run his mouth. (Jack Nicholson played the role in The Last Detail.) Sal and Doc haven’t seen each other since the events of the 1973 film, when Sal escorted Doc to military prison but, beforehand, tried very hard to show him a good time and get him laid. Doc has a request: He wants Sal to help him transport his son’s body to a local cemetery. Doc’s boy was serving in Iraq and died under mysterious circumstances, and since Doc has no other family—his wife died somewhat recently, too—he has no one else to turn to. Sal agrees, and the two men seek out Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), their fellow Last Detail chum, who’s found Jesus and become a pastor. (Otis Young portrayed Mueller back in ’73.) Thirty years later, these three will go on another emotionally fraught road trip.
Linklater, working from a novel by Darryl Ponicsan (who also wrote the book for The Last Detail), has an eye for the intricacies of male bonding and masculinity. But the youthful, wistful optimism of Boyhood and Everybody Wants Some!! are nowhere to be found in Last Flag Flying, which might be the gentlest antiwar film in memory. One suspects that the movie’s attitude articulates the feelings of many veterans: Their memories of combat are ever-present, like a bum knee or a bad back, and they’ve chosen to get on with life because no other solution has presented itself. Writing about The Last Detail, film historian David Thomson argued that its real theme was the grim notion that “living is a set of prisons,” an idea that explains why the trio’s sloppy search for cheap fun was so melancholy, even heroic, in its futility. The prisons are now permanent in Last Flag Flying—theoretical sadness has given way to real, permanent sadness—and these older men’s hijinks and half-remembered anecdotes feel even more pointless now. But it’s all they have—it’s the shared language that only they understand.
It’s impossible not to compare the new film’s actors to the ones in Hal Ashby’s original. Two of the three acquit themselves quite nicely. Decked out in a bushy mustache and sporting defeated eyes, Carell drains Doc’s joyful naivety—he’s no kid anymore, and he hasn’t been for a long time. There’s still a little something permanently goofy, a bit off, about the guy, but tragedy has shut him down, and we can understand why he’d turn to these fellow Vietnam vets for support—they get him in a way no one else can. Fishburne imbues Mueller with a towering sereneness, giving us a man who has found contentment in God and domesticity. But it’s not until Sal and Doc show up back in his life that he discovers a stirring for his old, foolish ways. Fishburne gives a soulful performance that sneaks in some fine moments of easy humor—we’re relieved that Mueller has, mostly, ended up okay.
Last Flag Flying is hampered, though, by Cranston’s portrayal of Sal, which becomes an unsuccessful attempt to play Nicholson. Oscar-nominated for his turn in The Last Detail, Nicholson was in the midst of his legendary run of anarchic performances, tackling one crazy, cockeyed dreamer after another. Cranston never cracks Sal, never decides if he’s doing a Nicholson impression or, like his costars, finding his own way into the character. The Sal of Last Flag Flying is overbearing, opinionated and proudly uncouth, which is all presumably part of Cranston’s intention: Doc and Mueller have been tempered by time, but Sal refuses to let aging mature him. But Cranston can’t give that idea resonance, and so the more he tries to emulate Nicholson’s cranky spitfire energy, the more actorly the performance becomes.
That’s the film’s biggest problem, but it’s not its only one. Linklater is a master of the hangout movie, but the incidental adventures of these three characters don’t always capture the intimacy and offhand beauty of everyday life that are the hallmarks of his work. Instead, we just watch some dudes tell stories and crack jokes. To be sure, there’s meant to be poetry in that—the film illuminating the invisible lives of veterans—and Last Flag Flying never shakes the inherent sadness at its core. The random, simplistic observations the men make about the stupidity of the Vietnam and Iraq conflicts aren’t meant to be profound—they’re merely the hard-earned truth of guys who have seen war up close. And throughout the film, Doc is just trying to get his son to his burial, hoping to understand the purpose of a death when such meaning is probably impossible.
And yet, Last Flag Flying’s minor-key approach starts to feel like a straitjacket rather than a principled, muted strategy to honor the ongoing sacrifices of soldiers and their families after the fighting stops. The movie builds to a nicely nuanced finale, and there are small grace notes peppered throughout. But whereas most Linklater films start modest and end up seeming powerfully universal, making us see our ordinary world in wondrous new ways, Last Flag Flying stays small. That feels appropriate to its characters, who have reached middle age to discover that no great cosmic insights are awaiting them. It would be presumptuous, then, for the audience to expect any from their movie. After all—and this may ultimately be the film’s point—haven’t we asked enough of men like them?
& Darryl Ponicsan (screenplay); Darryl Ponicsan (novel)
Starring: Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston, Laurence Fishburne, Yul Vazquez, Cicely Tyson
Release Date: November 3, 2017
Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.