Despite what has been reported, Last Flag Flying is not a sequel to Hal Ashby‘s The Last Detail. Darryl Ponicsan, who co-wrote the screenplay with director Richard Linklater, wrote both the book that Ashby adapted and the one that Linklater adapted, both of which follow the same three military men. In Linklater’s film, however, we are not re-introduced to Bill Buddusky, Mulhall, and Meadows, as portrayed by Jack Nicholson, Otis Young, and Randy Quaid. Instead, we meet Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston), Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), and ‘Doc’ Shepard (Steve Carell), three retired military men who we learn have a near-identical story of first coming together as that told in The Last Detail. Following on the heels of Linklater’s spectacular Everybody Wants Some!!, a spiritual sequel to Dazed and Confused, the director has made another movie that is both a continuation of sorts and a movie that exists on its own.
This is distinctly fitting of a film that means to consider the American military and what it means to be a part of its honorable and horrific legacy. As the film opens, its December 2003 and the Iraq War is raging in the Middle East, as well as American TV sets. That’s what’s on when Doc strolls into the bar where Sal, one-half of the team that escorted him to a military prison decades ago, is scratching out a bare-minimum living. Doc, who recently became a widow and still works for the military, is still friendly and congenial when he speaks about his days in the service. For Sal, the very idea of speaking kindly about the military is noxious and inflammatory, nothing more than a celebration of death and incompetence.
Doc’s visit to Sal’s bar is not simply a pop-in. The next morning, they reunite with Mueller, who has become a priest for a small parish, and at Mueller’s home, Doc reveals his reason for reconnecting: his son, barely out of high school, was killed in action in Baghdad and he wants Mueller and Sal to accompany him to lay his only child to rest. After minimum cajoling over dinner at Mueller’s house, they agree to hit the road. Amongst the many good things that Linklater and Ponicsan see in the military, the ease and unbreakable closeness with those who served and survived is one that is often highlighted here. If a veteran asks another veteran for help, there’s a clear emotional pull to do what they can, and that’s what Mueller and Sal do.
The bigger question that arises as the trio hit the road, however, is whether that kindness and empathy is dependent on such a wildly corrupt and philosophically rigid organization as the military. In other words, is the intimacy between these three men due to who they are inside or is it because they were American soldiers? For all the stirring talk about militaristic duty and the moral compromises of warfare, Last Flag Flying is, like most Linklater films, essentially about identity and the narratives often utilized to reinforce or mask that identity.
Doc still sees himself primarily as a veteran, which explains how he has spent a great deal of his life working a day job at the same place where he was imprisoned years ago. Mueller has traded in the popular narratives of the military for the even more popular narrative of The Bible and its lessons, while Sal has lashed himself to the mast of truth, no matter how ugly. There is an occasionally irksome neatness to this triangulation of perspectives but Cranston, Fishburne, and Carell transcend this tidiness regularly. Fishburne proves especially adept at teasing out how religion offers a guide for healing, counseling, and commitment while simultaneously making it easy to ignore harsh yet liberating truths and prolong a false narrative in the name of peaceful hearts and minds.
It’s Mueller who tells Doc that it might not be a good idea to see his son’s body or hear how he really died from his son’s best friend in the corps, Washington (J. Quinton Johnson), and he’s overpowered by Sal’s promise of sincere honesty. It’s the horror of what Doc hears and sees that causes him to give up a military funeral at Arlington and question the tradition of burying soldiers in their uniforms. Linklater also makes it clear that for all of Sal’s seemingly genuine attempts to speak truthfully and uncover the truth, he’s also attempting to indoctrinate Doc into adopting cynicism as his primary philosophy. In several scenes, he’s seen greedily taking whole handfuls of complimentary mints and candies, and he’s got a real problem sticking to other people’s schedules. In several scenes, when things get quiet, he begins tapping out loose rhythms with his hands on steering wheels and his lap, making up his own beat while also seemingly failing to find any real rhythm to his life.
What Last Flag Flying is missing is a greater sense of how the military has changed in small yet meaningful ways, and how those changes are at odds with its exclusive, steady-as-she-goes policies. This is only gleaned in one scene, wherein Washington is taken aside by his commanding officer, Col. Willits (Yul Vazquez), who viscerally demands that Doc’s son be buried in his uniform. Willits considers Doc’s son’s body to be the property of the military, not his family, which reveals a dark, deeply unsettling truth about the us-versus-them mentality that war engenders and that has turned nationalism and patriotism into cult-like beliefs. Though he never hears Willits say it, the scene confirms Sal’s worst fears about who and what he served for over all those years.
For all the pride he has in his no-bullshit philosophy, however, even Sal has to ultimately bite his tongue when it comes to his own moral compromises in war. During a stop-over on the way to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where Doc lives and where he wishes to bury his son, the trio stop in to meet with Ms. Hightower (Cicely Tyson), the mother of James Hightower, a soldier who died in Mueller and Sal’s arms in Vietnam. That soldier’s death was exasperated by their selfish, cynical actions as young pissed-off soldiers who thought they were going to die at any given moment, and Linklater smartly touches on how drug use in the military both eases the dire requirements of the job and corrupts the person.
Linklater’s usual homey, unfussy style feels a bit more downcast here, more particular to dark blues, greys, browns, and blacks in its color scheme than the sunny vistas of Everybody Wants Some!!. The pacing remains just as thrilling and rhythmic as his last feature but the material is richer, more complex, and agreeably unreconcilable in the end. The director sees faith and belief in nationalism and patriotism as inherently problematic and easily utilized in the name of marketing. After all, if the public were to regularly see the men and women who came home in caskets with their faces blown off by a bullet or their bodies torn apart by explosives, it would be near-impossible to see the good in warfare.
As much as Doc is seemingly unable to give up his dedication to the military, Sal is also unable to give up his disdain for the institution that he poured his young life into. It’s unclear if Doc will ever give up his loyalty in total, but there’s a sense at the end that Sal is awakening from his dislike for a world that forgives the military for even their most egregious crimes, from which he’s been hiding in a bar where his alcoholism is normalized and forgiven by fellow patrons. When he obtains his first flip phone, he takes to the gadget immediately and is stunned by how easily he can keep in contact with others. At Doc’s son’s wake, he even strikes up a conversation with a young woman that looks promising.
Much as he did with Bernie and Before Midnight, Linklater shows a rousing ability to find humor in dark subject matter, material that it’s easily to react to with bitterness and cynicism rather than healthy skepticism. One could easily write this off as the wonders of technology burying resentment and fury over real-world atrocities, but Linklater never suggests that Sal is any less suspicious of where he came from and what his country has done. Instead, by the abrupt, heartbreaking end of Last Flag Flying, he seems to be reconnecting to a life that looks very different from the one he lived before and yet remains familiar, homey, and not without a few pleasant surprises amongst the drudgery and dread.
Last Flag Flying arrives in theaters on November 3rd.