Director: Richard Linklater
Stars: Bryan Cranston, Laurence Fishburne, Steve Carell
Teaming up with Darryl Ponicsan, author of the novel The Last Detail, Richard Linklater follows the one-two-three punch of Before Midnight, Boyhood and Everybody Wants Some!! with a picture that feels somewhat out of step with a lot of modern filmmaking, one that lands on limited release here in the UK during a very busy release period. If the timing is to join the expected prestige pictures in a race to awards glory, then the attempt has failed. Not a lot of nominations batting around for this one. Plus the pitch itself isn’t exactly enticing; three former marines in their fifties reunite for the funeral of one of their children? Even as a Linklater devotee, I found myself struggling to muster enthusiasm.
Of course, Last Flag Flying is a ‘spiritual sequel’ to The Last Detail. That’s probably the least surprising detail of all (Linklater’s last was a spiritual sequel to his own Dazed And Confused). But belated continuations often feel the conspicuous gap between pieces, and this time Linklater isn’t just reloading his own material; he’s going toe-to-toe with the legacy of Hal Ashby’s beloved slice of 1970’s New American Cinema.
Stylistically, Ashby and Linklater are similar. Both build fond connections with their audience without flashy means, preferring to earn warmth with relatable, multidimensional characters. Both present optimistic visions of the American people in the midst of fractal times. Both are humanists. And yet Last Flag Flying bares scant resemblance to its 45-year-old sibling. Where Ashby’s flick felt bristling with possibility, Linklater’s more commonly coasts. He’s had a momentous few years. This one feels like his foot’s off the gas, and not just a little.
But then, it’s a gentle story. His three leads are eminently likable folks. Bryan Cranston plays stubborn barkeep Sal; a lifelong liability tempered by a free-spirited exuberance for living. Laurence Fishburne is Rev. Richard Miller; himself tempered by married life and his congregation. Steve Carell is back in dramatic mode playing Larry ‘Doc’ Shepherd; it’s his son who has recently died in service. He collects the other two to accompany him in ferrying the body from Dover, Delaware to Arlington Cemetery.
Carell wears a moustache that can’t help but recall Jack Nicholson playing Buddusky in the The Last Detail, but their characters couldn’t be more different. Of course, Carell’s Doc is coloured by circumstance. The death of his son comes soon after the loss of his wife. He’s a quiet man. A sad sack looking for something – anything – to put his back up against. In order to find it he has looked to the friends who had his back once before, in the thick of Vietnam. Carell is muted, reserved. Not to the point of the comatose as in Foxcatcher, but his Doc is shutdown in a way that almost recalls the autism of Brick Tamland without the laughs. Cranston is at home in his incorrigible crouch and wise-ass, looking like he’s lived and breathed this character. There’s an arrogance that recalls the same streak in Walter White. Fishburne, meanwhile, quietly puts in some of his best work in years.
The film is set in 2003. Larry – Doc’s son – was killed in Iraq. The War On Terror, legitimate or otherwise, feels a million miles from our world today, in spite of international incidents that continue to pepper the news. We’re kept in a near-constant state of hysteria through current events, yet so little of this terror is at the hands of your so-called traditional terrorists. There seems little intention to make something that feels timely here, outside of a few generic swipes at untrustworthy governments. Jokes here are made at the expense of Osama Bin Lama and Eminem. Hardly relevant figures these days. Indeed, the comparative calmness of 14 years ago seems almost quaint. The manner of Larry’s death speaks to the filmmakers’ politics regarding the fight but this is less an overtly political piece and more of a character one. These men have spent a lifetime becoming the men they are when we meet them.
For all that’s impressive in seeing these actors create these individuals with ease, there’s little pressing reason to remain invested, and clockwatching uncomfortably sets in early, around the end of the first act. The Last Detail meandered, but it did so in the manner of a well-told shaggy dog story, where each new turn adds greater seasoning to the whole. Linklater’s movie doesn’t achieve the same snowball effect. It continues doggedly along a straight line. The passing of time is a constant concern in his cinema, but here it just feels like time passing. It seems churlish to criticise the film for not giving more, but sadly Last Flag Flying seems to have slipped through the season for good reason.
That last scene is a kicker though.