By Owen Gleiberman
If you took three middle-aged war veterans and turned their lives into an earnest, pious, watchable, but naggingly inauthentic TV dramedy, the result might look something like Richard Linklater’s Last Flag Flying. The movie is adapted from a novel by Daryl Ponicsan, who wrote the book The Last Detail was based on, and it’s a kind of spiritual sequel that mirrors the abstract outline of that celebrated 1973 film: a trio of military men thrown together on a scattershot road odyssey. In this case, though, the setting is December 2003, and the three men are old comrades (two Marines, one Navy) who all served together in Vietnam.
Sal (Bryan Cranston), craggy and bearded in a black leather jacket, with a leering insult for every occasion, is the upstart of the group: an ebullient, foul-mouthed drinker who owns and runs a dive bar in Norfolk, Virginia. Burly, gray-haired Richard (Laurence Fishburne) is the reformed one, a courtly, sanctimonious, and long-married reverend who never takes off his religious collar, and has done everything in his power to repress the man he once was — a loose cannon of a soldier known as “Mueller the Mauler.” (The nickname was given to him not for his combat skills, but for his sexual enthusiasm in whorehouses.)
Finally, there’s Larry (Steve Carell), known as Doc, a mild, slump-shouldered Navy clerk who’s got good reason to be down in the dumps: He lost his wife to breast cancer, and his son, a Marine, was recently killed in Baghdad. Doc now has to bury him, and enlists his two old military colleagues to assist him in the dreaded task. They haven’t even spoken to each other since the war, and if that sounds like that other dreaded thing, a plot device…well, that’s just what it is. Get used to it; the movie is full of them.
The set-up of Last Flag Flying seems promising on the surface, especially for a director like Linklater, who in Before Sunrise and its two sequels proved that he could take nothing more than a couple of great actors, an eager roving camera, and the back-and-forth flow of conversation and transform it all into cinematic magic. But in Last Flag Flying, Linklater’s naturalistic poetic muse seems to have taken a sabbatical. The script, which he co-wrote with Ponicsan, is formless and haphazard (at 2 hours and 4 minutes, the movie plods on and on), and the themes, of regret and repentance and American lies, are showcased in a way that’s surprisingly tidy and didactic.
Yet the central reason that Last Flag Flying fails to take wing is that its characters don’t ring true. Not really. You never feel, in your bones, that you’re watching battle-scarred veterans. You feel like you’re seeing terrific actors doing all they can — even to the point of hamming it up — to bring life and soul to a not-so-well-made play. In an environment where even the best Iraq war films have proven a hard sell, commercial prospects for Last Flag Flying are likely to be severely limited. And while one can understand why the New York Film Festival chose this for its opening-night selection, the choice looks a lot better on paper than it’s likely to play.
Doing a spin on The Last Detail sounds like a quintessential act of Linklater audacity, yet it has to be said that to evoke that movie raises the bar. A classic New Hollywood road ramble, The Last Detail is a drama of startling naturalistic purity. It’s just two sailors, led by Jack Nicholson, taking a saddened young seaman to the brig, the three loping along from Washington to New York to Boston to Portsmouth, looking and acting like the restless outsiders they are. (They keep meeting people, but none of the encounters ever quite take.) The script was by Robert Towne, the most celebrated screenwriter of his generation, but the dialogue never feels showy or “written.” It’s quiet and direct, always true to the characters, without a trace of movie-ish speechifying; even Nicholson expresses his cockeyed brashness in quick forlorn bursts. To watch The Last Detail is to drift into these people’s lives, and then drift out again. It’s to see the New Hollywood sanded down to its shaggy-dog essence.
Linklater can be a master of drifting naturalism (e.g., Dazed and Confused), but Last Flag Flying, surprisingly, has none of that free-flowing, organic quality. The whole tone is punchy, concocted, telegraphed, even though certain elements of character and place ricochet off the earlier film. Carell’s Doc spent a couple of years in the brig, starting when he was 19 (which evokes the fate of Randy Quaid’s woebegone thief), and he lives in Portsmouth, the site of that Naval prison; the men spend a long night prowling the streets and bars of Manhattan. And Cranston’s Sal might be seen as a temperamental cousin to Nicholson’s Billy “Badass” Buddusky: another solitary piece of male wreckage, always taking the piss out of people with a “Who’s your buddy?” grin.
Yet the comparison ends there. Sal, as written, keeps tossing off jaunty clichés (“I’m in the U.S. Marine Corps, and I look pretty f—in’ good!”), and Cranston, as fantastic an actor as he can be, tosses off his banter with so much hard-ass sentimental glee that he winds up coming off as a bit corny: a foul-mouthed ruffian with a heart of gold. And Sal, unfortunately, is the complicated one. Fishburne makes Richard a likable scold, but with his constant fixation on all things holy, he’s an overly pat personality, and his earlier — dirtier — self is far too compartmentalized. (It comes out in quick bursts, like a momentary visit by Military Mr. Hyde.) As for Carell, he does one of his minimalist melancholy turns: the wimpy mustache, the steel-rimmed glasses, the studious lack of expression, all leading to a careful cue of repressed tears. This guy doesn’t look like he would have survived working in the Vietnam book depository.
At the Dover Marine Base, the three recover the coffin of Doc’s son, only to learn, from one of the the son’s platoon mates (J. Quinton Johnson), what really happened to him. Yet even here, there’s a nagging oddity. The official statement of the U.S. military is that he’s a hero who died in combat. But the truth is that he was killed in a way that sounds…not all that far removed from combat. (Unless one considers the tactics of Islamic radicals to be somehow “sub-military.”) Instead of burying him in Arlington National Cemetery, the three men decide to take the coffin on their own up to Portsmouth, where Doc wants to bury him out of uniform — a rebuke to the meaning of his service.
Last Flag Flying emerges as a kind of talky referendum on the legacy of the Vietnam and Iraq wars, and on the spirit — and lies — that unite them. But what this comes down to is that the script has the characters mouthing cynical, world-weary liberal platitudes about how you can’t trust the government, and what good did these damn wars do anyway? It’s not as if no veteran has ever had those thoughts, but the thoughts tend to come from a different place — one that’s smelted and molded by the experience of war. Last Flag Flying it more interested in editorializing than it is in capturing that experience.
The hell of war gets symbolized by the death, in Vietnam, of one of the men’s fellow soldiers, who suffered unduly — and they could do nothing, because they had all taken the morphine that was meant to be used as a pain reliever. (They were drowning their own pain.) But when they visit the soldier’s mother (played with radiant frailty by Cicely Tyson), this just leads them to tell a lie of their own — a grand irony, in light of the government’s lies, that the film scarcely makes note of. It’s another slice of conflict that could, in theory, have been wrenching but just ends up feeling rigged.
When Richard Linklater is on, his greatness as a filmmaker descends from his nimble spontaneity. He has Robert Altman’s gift for making it look as if life is simply happening in front of you, and that’s the gift of a humanist magician. But in Last Flag Flying, you rarely forget that you’re listening to actors mouth scripted lines. There’s a place for that kind of drama, but in this case it fights the truth that Linklater is out to capture: the experience of these men’s lives. Decades after The Last Detail, I still think of Nicholson’s Buddusky as an actual dude, a Navy lifer stewing in the juice of his bitter exuberance. But with these three, you don’t feel as if their lives will go on. Not unless somebody writes another episode.