“Last Flag Flying” and the muddled politics of war

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IN 1973, Hal Ashby released “The Last Detail”, a film whose anti-authoritarian politics made it an icon of the counterculture. It is the story of two Navy lifers (Jack Nicholson and Otis Young) tasked with accompanying a young petty thief (Randy Quaid) to military prison. Along the way they show him a good time and gripe about the abuse of power in his heavy sentence: although he only stole $40, his he had stolen from a jar promoting a charity favoured by the head officer. “Last Flag Flying”, a new film by Richard Linklater, is a sequel of sorts, aiming for the same blend of rollicking hijinks, low-key tragedy and poignant political critique. The times, however, have changed. There is no real counterculture now, only a series of competing views, leaving “Last Flag Flying” with nothing to subvert.

Set in 2003, the film opens with Doc (Steve Carell), a taciturn Vietnam veteran who arrives at a bar owned by his salty old platoon mate Sal (Bryan Cranston), a gregarious drunk. The two have not seen each other in decades, and the ellipses in their conversation hint at a traumatic event in their shared past. They soon meet up with Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), another war buddy who is now a preacher at a local church, and their mission is revealed. Doc’s son has been killed in action in Iraq, and he wants his old friends to accompany him to the funeral at Arlington Cemetery.

It is a journey that will have several detours, with the trio spending nights in New York, Boston and the rarely-travelled recesses of their past. Mr Linklater is adept at staging male bonding—see “Dazed and Confused” (1993) and “Everybody Wants Some!” (2016)—and he finds poetry in three reunited friends slipping back into their old dynamics. The once lively Mueller is now serene and collected, which of course incites Sal to push him to his breaking point. In one delightful highway scene, Sal taunts an 18-wheeler, prompting his preacher friend to finally unleash a flurry of obscenities at his old friend for courting disaster, while Doc looks on in bemused delight. As Sal heralds the return of his old friend, previously concealed beneath the cloth, a warm feeling of nostalgia descends on the audience.

But the film has bigger ambitions, and Mr Linklater is less comfortable with the political elements. “Last Flag Flying” is adapted from a 2004 book by Darryl Ponsican (who also wrote the source material for “The Last Detail”), yet it diverges from the plot by changing the characters’ backstory. Instead of being traumatised as navy men shepherding the young Doc to prison for a petty crime, they are now Marines, and “Last Flag Flying” reveals that they fought in the jungle together. It is a smart change in that allows the film-makers to comment through their characters on the war in Iraq, which seems to infiltrate all corners of public and private life. Criticism of the war effort by civilians is often dismissed, but when combat veterans offer the same criticism, people tend to listen.

“We’ve got to fight them over there, so we don’t fight them here,” says a young soldier accompanying them on their journey, and the three grizzled vets burst out in laughter. They have heard it before. When Doc arrives to retrieve his son’s body, Sal comments grumpily on the new policy prohibiting photographs of the flag-draped coffins. These topical criticisms are a bolt of lightning connecting the past to the then-present. With discussions about whether patriotism and criticism of America can co-exist continuing to dominate headlines (see recent events in the NFL), the elements are there in “Last Flag Flying” for the same inquiry into the American character that made “The Last Detail” so resonant. 

The problem is that, when compared to 1973, the American identity is even more confused. The opinions of Sal, Mueller and Doc represent the muddled majority view in America. They oppose wars in the Middle East but revere military service, and are deeply supportive of individual soldiers. The film deserves some credit for accurately reflecting America’s gridlocked military politics, but it never dramatises the issue. All three characters share the same view, and none of them change or challenge the audience in significant ways. Doc starts out angry at the Marines for getting his son killed, but by the end—when he decides to bury his son in his uniform—his reverence is renewed.

Even the three seasoned actors at the film’s centre cannot breathe life into the poorly thought-out characters. Mr Carell accords himself well enough as a man shell-shocked by a death. He has moments that are genuinely affecting, revealing earth-shaking grief or bursting into a surprising fit of laughter. Mr Fishburne oscillates between righteous serenity and flashes of the old anger without uncovering the connective tissue between them, and Mr Cranston is painfully broad. He grumbles, giggles and gyrates his way through the story like a debauched sprite, leaving a gaping emotional hole at the film’s centre. 

The shame is that the material has so much potential, particularly in its complex relationship to time. The narrative of “Last Flag Flying” puts three eras in dialogue with each other (Vietnam, Iraq, the present), which creates opportunities to show changing attitudes and offer poetic reflection. There is no change on display in this film, however. Little is revealed, except that war is hell (and perhaps that making a film about 21st-century conflicts is tricky, too). The characters represent real viewpoints, but the film skips the hard work of characterisation, and they never become fully realised in the imagination. “Last Flag Flying” wants to heal its country but, like the rest of America, has no real idea of how to do it.

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