We’ve all seen a lot of anti–Vietnam War movies, and there have been quite a few anti–Iraq War movies. Last Flag Flying, which just debuted at the New York Film Festival ahead of its November 3 theatrical release, represents innovative thinking: It’s both an anti–Vietnam War and an anti–Iraq War movie. That means a double dose of trite talking points, but in its final act it pulls off an elegant surprise: Its cynicism about wars of choice is balanced by reverence for the military.
The anti–Vietnam War movies are, as a group, far better than the anti–Iraq War films because they go much deeper. Movies like Lions for Lambs (2007), In the Valley of Elah (2007), Rendition (2007), Grace Is Gone (2007), Stop-Loss (2008), and The Lucky Ones (2008) were shallow, banal, on-the-nose propaganda. One of the cleverer and more oblique cinematic statements about Vietnam was Hal Ashby’s The Last Detail (1973), which disguised its anti-authority message in an amusing, chaotic road trip during which two sailors, one black and one white, escort a third, who has been convicted of a petty crime, to the brig at Portsmouth, N.H. The three men discover they have much more in common with one another than any of them has with the seemingly arbitrary dictates of the heartless military-justice system that has brought them together.
Last Flag Flying has a strange relationship to The Last Detail: It’s sort of a sequel and sort of not. Both films are based on novels by Darryl Ponicsan. It’s perhaps best to think of the new film as a sequel to a movie that was never made, one whose particulars differ slightly from those of The Last Detail. The guy who did time in prison, once played by Randy Quaid and called Meadows, gives way to an ex-sailor played by Steve Carell, whose character is named Larry Shepherd. Larry turns up unannounced at a bar run by Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston), who is as brash and profane as Jack Nicholson’s Billy Buddusky in The Last Detail. It is December of 2003, and the two men haven’t seen each other in 30 years, but Larry wants Sal’s help for a vaguely defined mission. This turns out to be a road trip to bury Larry’s son, a Marine who has just been killed in the Iraq War. But first the two men have to track down someone much like the third principal in The Last Detail: Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne). In the earlier film a similar character was called Mulhall and played by Otis Young.
Directed and co-written by Richard Linklater, who is known for diffuse, loosely organized slice-of-life films that sometimes work brilliantly (Boyhood, Dazed and Confused) and at other times seem random and pointless (last year’s Everybody Wants Some!!), Last Flag Flying is a typically unhurried, ambling work. As the men make their way to the air base at Dover, Del., to pick up the casket of the fallen Marine, then escort the body north on a train toward Portsmouth for burial, the film tosses in a bunch of arbitrary comic vignettes. A couple of scenes suggest post-9/11 America was so nuts that DHS would have random Baptist ministers arrested on suspicion of being terrorists. Another scene tries to get comic mileage out of the three men being amazed by cell phones, which none of them yet have. There is a snarky reference to a dumb left-wing talking point about the Bush administration’s decision not to allow the media to photograph coffins arriving at Dover. And a colonel who appears to be respectful and deferential to the grieving father turns out to have a secret agenda: He assigns a young enlisted man (J. Quinton Johnson) to stay with the body and make sure it is buried in uniform, against the stated wishes of the father, who has no use for the military anymore.
The camaraderie of the men is palpable, and Cranston’s boisterous, often very funny performance as Sal makes him an amusing contrast to the grieving Larry, touchingly played by Carell, and Fishburne’s tightly self-controlled Mueller. As clunky as some scenes are, there’s a class-reunion warmth and a wryness about aging that make Last Flag Flying endearing.
Still, I was prepared to walk away with a shrug until the unexpectedly powerful last act, when the three old pals visit the mother (Cicely Tyson) of a fallen former comrade in arms from their Vietnam days. Confronting some of their worst memories, the men nevertheless find some deep military pride clicking into place, coming to them as naturally as saluting the colors.
The Tyson scene is heartbreaking, but it’s followed by an even better one at the final resting place of Larry’s fallen son. This trio may spend most of its time doing something in which military men specialize — moaning and groaning about everything, including the political leadership of their country — but when it comes right down to it, they have a sense of duty and honor that sets them apart from civilians, and so did the Marine they have gathered to bury. As much as they disagree with the decisions to go to war in Iraq and Vietnam, they know that dying for your country is part of the deal. Sal and Richard wouldn’t trade their experience in the Corps for anything, and neither would the young man in the casket.
Here’s where Last Flag Flying parts company with so many other anti–Iraq War films: These men aren’t dupes. They aren’t mindless lambs. They’re patriots, and a country without their like would be a much diminished one. Linklater, despite his liberal leanings, is a lifelong red-state filmmaker, and he gives these complicated characters the respect they deserve. Bravo to him.