The opening-night presentation of the 2017 New York Film Festival was unusually somber and down to earth: the American road drama Last Flag Flying, in which three gravely damaged Vietnam vets — Larry, a.k.a. “Doc” (Steve Carell), Sal (Bryan Cranston), and Mueller (Laurence Fishburne) — reunite in 2003 to bury Doc’s son, Larry Jr., killed in the first year of the Iraq War. The director, Richard Linklater, keeps the tempo flat, the settings drab. Even the air seems fuzzy, thick. Although the banter is high-flying (Cranston’s Sal is a foulmouthed hothead), it’s a grim slog from the semi-stupor of grief and age (and alcohol) to something that acknowledges even the possibility of transcending the misery of 21st-century America. The movie is so laden it’s hard to endure. But worth it.
Its tone derives largely from Carell’s near-catatonic Doc, who travels to Sal’s seedy bar in Norfolk, Virginia, and then to the Baptist church in which Mueller (now a man of God) delivers fiery sermons. Sal and Mueller have purged all thoughts of Doc from their heads, perhaps — the truth comes out in dribs and drabs and is never totally clear — because of guilt. Decades earlier, something put Doc in the brig and left Sal and Mueller bitter and wrung-out. They’re awkward with one another even before Doc tells them about his son and asks them to accompany him to retrieve the body. Sal’s flamboyant, foulmouthed atheism rankles Mueller, a former hell-raiser who had a midlife religious awakening. (“I grew up, Sal. I found my life’s purpose.”) And Sal has an even more disturbing tendency: He’s always trying to pierce people’s illusions, even when those life lies (a belief in God or in a dead son’s heroism) are all that’s holding them together.
Besides, what can they say to Doc that will be any consolation? As a kid he was thrust into an unjust war, imprisoned for unjust reasons, and robbed of his only son by an even more unjust war.
What finally unites the three is a strain of anti-authoritarianism, the kind that was culturally sanctified in the Vietnam era but less common in the age of “Thank you for your service” and less safe in the shadow of a Department of Homeland Security. Smart-ass back talk to an officious Marine colonel (Yul Vazquez) spouting canned platitudes does wonders for the mood — as does changing the coffin’s destination, over the colonel’s strenuous objection, from Arlington National Cemetery to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where Doc lives and his wife is buried.
To put that anti-authoritarianism in perspective, it helps to know that these characters originated in Darryl Ponicsan’s first novel, The Last Detail, a raucous but definitively downbeat story of two long-serving Navy signalmen assigned to transport an 18-year-old from Norfolk, Virginia, to Portsmouth, where the kid will spend eight years in the brig for stealing $40 from a collection bucket. (The kid is a harmless kleptomaniac, a simpleton, but it was the base commander’s wife’s pet charity.) The 1973 movie, directed by Hal Ashby from a script by Robert Towne, cemented Jack Nicholson’s stardom (he played Billy “Badass” Buddusky) and introduced the goofy young Randy Quaid. Although the novel (not the film) ended with Buddusky getting beaten to death by marines, Ponicsan decided to resurrect all three characters for a 2005 sequel, Last Flag Flying. More than 30 years later after that five-day trip, the unlucky kid comes looking for the closest thing to buddies he has ever had, and their journey from Norfolk (where Buddusky owns a rundown bar) to Portsmouth is both a bleak echo and a search for something that will endure in such an absurd, ephemeral world.
I’m of two minds about Linklater’s decision to keep the novel’s basic narrative but cut all ties to The Last Detail, changing the characters’ names and backstories. (Ponicsan has a screenplay co-credit.) You obviously couldn’t bring back that cast: Nicholson is too old, Quaid too insane, and Otis Young (who played the other member of the trio) too deceased. (He died in 2001.) Buddusky might well be Nicholson’s greatest performance: Who’d want to follow that? And it’s not like The Last Detail — good as it is — has been a part of our national consciousness for decades. People aren’t interested in sequels to movies they’ve never heard of.
What’s lost, though, is that sensational story of two cynical guards and the innocent doofus who brings them back to life — and then, when they do their duty as pawns of an authority they despise, it drives them to despair. What’s lost is the symmetry of the two road trips from Norfolk to Portsmouth. Last Flag Flying wouldn’t exist without the foundation of The Last Detail, and you can sense there’s something missing even if you don’t know the earlier work. (I miss Towne’s dialogue, too.)
The trio of stars doesn’t quite mesh, with Carell very much on the outside. It’s bad casting. He has worked hard to become a serious actor, but dazedness comes too easily to him. It worked in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, where his character’s anxiety-driven paralysis is supposed to be funny, and in Anchorman, where he’s playing a cretin. In this case, though, once you register Doc’s despondency, there’s nothing else to see in Carell’s face or hear in his toneless little voice. It’s not that he’s bad. As caricatures go, he’s moving. But his ugly mustache is the most vivid thing about him.
Cranston is at the opposite extreme, giving a full-blown stage performance complete with broad working-class dialect. It’s fun to see him roar, though. And he plays well off Fishburne, a titanic actor (in person, he has the widest shoulders I’ve ever seen) who can go without missing a beat from complacent godly bromides to torrents of four-letter words. He’s a great bellower.
Last Flag Flying is most unnerving when Sal gets it in his head to deliver unpleasant truths in the face of common sense — or human decency. He vehemently urges Doc to view his son’s body, although the round to the back of Larry Jr.’s head blew off the young man’s face. And the first thing he thinks to do when Larry Jr.’s best friend (J. Quinton Johnson) tells him how the young man really died is share the ugly news. Late in the film, Sal drags Doc and Mueller to the home of a dead Vietnam soldier’s aging mother (Cicely Tyson), who has lived for decades believing her son was killed while saving the rest of his platoon. Does he think telling her what really happened will help her live? Is that the kind of truth that sets people free?
In the mother’s case, no. But there’s no universally right answer. Part of the Bush administration’s strategy for keeping that absurd war going was making sure that the coffins were never photographed, that the bodies were out of sight. It’s in the uncertainties and dissonances of Last Flag Flying that Linklater’s humanism really expresses itself. Three men of vastly different values and temperaments come alive in the shared understanding that their losses were for nothing. And that shared understanding is something.