Richard Linklater’s movies tend to work best when they feel like hanging out. There’s a breeziness to the language as people walk, talk, and spend time with one another that resembles genuine conversation.
The Before trilogy best exemplifies this quality, with Jesse and Celine as peripatetic guides through attraction, longing, and love; Boyhood does this well too, building an entire narrative predominantly through the interstitial moments of a traditional coming-of-age tale. There’s an associative flow to films like Slacker and Waking Life that resembles snippets of conversation overheard on the street or barely remembered from a dream. During Dazed and Confused or Everybody Wants Some!!, I often thought, “That’s like something my friend would say.”
Last Flag Flying feels most assured when it hits that hanging-out sweet spot. Those looser moments get lost among many overly mannered and overly sentimental scenes. I often felt that Steve Carrell, Laurence Fishburne, and Bryan Cranston were playing character-types rather than fully realized characters, the sort of fictional people whose essences are distilled into a bunch of awards show clips.
[This review is part of Flixist’s coverage of the 55th New York Film Festival. It has been reposted to coincide with the theatrical release of the film.]
Last Flag Flying
Director: Richard Linklater
Release Date: November 3, 2017
Set in 2003, Last Flag Flying is a loose pseudo-sequel to Hal Ashby’s 1973 film The Last Detail. Linklater and co-writer Darryl Ponicsan build their road movie on contrivances. It’s been about 30 years since “Doc” Shepard (Carrell) has seen two of his friends from Vietnam. He goes to them both in-person out of the blue–first to Sal Nealon (Cranston) who runs a dive bar and plays the devil on one shoulder, and then to Mueller (Fishburne) who’s a pastor with a bad leg and the angel on the other shoulder. Doc has a painful mission: he needs some company to retrieve the body of his son, a marine who died in the Iraq War. Another contrivance and now the trio must bring Doc’s son back home to New Hampshire to be buried as a civilian, accompanied by a young marine named Washington (J. Quinton Johnson).
Doc grieves through the film, the majority of the character’s lines delivered in Carrell’s wounded, well-worn nasally honks. Mueller is ever-pious and ever-praying and ever-Bible-quoting, though he lets in a little salty language as needed for a laugh. Sal is full of cynical, over-the-top bluster as Cranston basically impersonates Jack Nicholson, the dialogue delivered in bold, underlined, italicized sneers. The only character more over-the-top than Sal is a marine colonel at the airfield whose petty bureaucratic arrogance becomes full-blown cartoonish supervillainy.
So much about Last Flag Flying feels like schtick rather than something that comes from the characters on their journey. It undermines the best scenes in the film in which pathos and laughter complement each other. Most times it’s Cranston’s performance that does this, pushing a little too much or too far or too hard and undoing the funny/sad latticework. While swapping stories about Vietnamese prostitutes, there’s a joyous camaraderie among the men. It feels like hanging out after being alone for so long. But then Cranston has to go and hump Fishburne’s bad leg, which points out all the artifice of what’s going on and the way the screenplay keeps going for overstatement. The schtick reveals the schmaltz.
Sal often rankles people in a way that’s far too schticky to be believable; the difference between a character and a character-type. The constant wiseacre-ing becomes grating rather than endearing after awhile. For instance, Sal keeps questioning Mueller’s faith in a way that seems too antagonistic. I kept thinking, “He’s a Christian, Sal, not a martian.” Sal has to have met another Christian before, and as the owner of a bar (especially one as divey as his), he probably knows a few alcoholics in recovery too.
Johnson’s character could have been a good grounding and generational counterpoint among these three broad characters. Sadly he’s not given much to do or a moment to shine despite how close he was to Doc’s son and how integral he is to the early part of the plot. It surprised me that Doc and Washington rarely share a moment together to talk about the dead son who’s the impetus for this whole film.
A lot of these issues I had stem from the screenplay, which seems to spoon feed its points to the audience but can’t quite formulate the larger statement it hopes to make about the effects of war on veterans and their loved ones. The characters often draw parallels between Vietnam and Iraq, yet so much of the talk about the Iraq War feels superficial, comprised of the boilerplate catchphrases that signify war discussion in George W. Bush’s America in 2003. It feels like the language of pundits rather than the talk of people who’ve served; era-specific signifiers, little more. Like references to cellphone minutes, this essential conversation feels like set-dressing. And yet the movie wants to say so much more than it can, particularly when it comes to the ways that lies are used to start a war, or how truths can be hidden to protect people’s feelings.
At least there’s a poignancy about the closing notes of Last Flag Flying, and a fascinating ambivalence when the marines of the film consider the state of the marines in general. They’re connected to the people who served, to each other, but share a distrust of the institutions in place. There are moments in which the grieving process is handled delicately, when it’s only about people and not schtick. In these cases, the overwhelming emotions can’t be eased with words but rather through the act of just being there for the other person. Providing a conciliatory presence is a kind of hanging out, which is what happens during one of the film’s late excursions to Boston. Bluster won’t always do the job when face-to-face with someone else who needs something more, something human.
Moments of compassionate hanging out–whether they’re funny or they’re sad–are dotted throughout Last Flag Flying, like rest stops on the highway. They’re around, sure, but sometimes on a long drive you just wish there’d be more of them.