Richard Linklater isn’t really sure how to categorize his latest movie, Last Flag Flying, which premiered at the New York Film Festival last night.
“Is it a war movie?” he asked himself at a press conference at Lincoln Center yesterday afternoon.
Not in the traditional sense, since there are no combat scenes. But the film, set in 2003, does follow two Vietnam vets, Sal (Bryan Cranston) and Mueller (Laurence Fishburne) as they reunite with Doc (Steve Carell) in order to help their old colleague bury his son, a casualty of the Iraq War.
Last Flag Flying is an adaptation of Darryl Ponicsan’s same-titled novel, written as a sequel, of sorts, to his 1970 novel The Last Detail, which became a Hal Ashby movie starring Jack Nicholson. “I read Darryl’s book and loved it because it was really about how these two wars [Vietnam and Iraq] talk to each other and echo one another,” Linklater said.
“They don’t usually make war movies about 30 years later, guys hanging out, sensing how it affected them,” he added.
Despite his “mixed feelings about so many war moves,” Linklater admitted his could be considered one, though he said it was just as much a road movie. When Doc discovers that the government has lied about the heroic nature of his son’s death, he decides to bury him in his hometown, in civilian clothing, rather than in Arlington National Cemetery. The decision, made out of anger and heartbreak, means he and his old friends will have to transport the boy’s body by train from Delaware to New Hampshire, with stops along the way in Boston and New York City. They’re accompanied by a younger marine (J. Quinton Johnson) who served alongside the son.
As Cranston noted during the press conference, the trip brings to light that “with age comes reflection, nostalgia for better times, even if you’re looking through rose-colored glasses.” His character, Sal, a wise-cracking, hard-drinking bar owner, misses the camaraderie of his days in the Marines even if he has a problem with authority and harbors resentment over the political folly of Vietnam. Along with his two war buddies, he’s also haunted by memories of a fallen comrade.
Not all of the characters are looking back. Fishburne plays a character who, in his words, is “looking up”— a preacher and family man who would rather forget his days of partying in “Disneyland” (the red-light district around the base). Needless to say, he’s hesitant to go on a road trip with men who represent a “very dark time” in his life.
Doc, meanwhile, must grieve for his son while grappling with the lie his government has told him. The idea that “truth is a really blunt instrument” is central to the film, said Linklater, as are questions like: “Are countries honest with their people? Is the mission forthright with what the real mission is to the soldier?”
Part of the reason the film can freely ask these things about Iraq is that so much time has passed since Linklater and Ponicsan first started working on the script in 2005. “I think a lot of wars, in retrospect they’re more palatable,” Linklater noted. “Had this come out in 2005, it’s a little too hot a subject.”
Of course, the movie’s subject matter remains timely, given that Trump recently opted to send more troops to Afghanistan. The crew noted that they all watched the presidential election together, hours before they had to shoot the scene where Doc retrieves his son’s body at a military base. “We were shooting at the base and the next morning [after Election Night] I walked in and there were five flag-draped coffins,” Linklater recalled of the set. “And I was like, ‘Oh, there’s no one in those coffins but it feels like we’re in them.’”
Still, Linklater reminded the crowd that the film takes place in 2003, which means that, despite an emotionally loaded scene involving the ritual folding of the American flag, their movie has “nothing to do” with, say, the current controversy over Colin Kaepernick.
Instead, Linklater said, Last Flag Flying