Richard Linklater aficionados will be familiar with the director’s unique ability to conjure up cinematic poetry from a set of trademarked ingredients: actors engaging in endless, often day-long conversations, and a camera following their footsteps.
Last Flag Flying contains all the elements that made Linklater a cult figure in the US indie universe, but the end result does not feel, look or sound anything worthy of his name. Based on the eponymous novel by co-script writer Darryl Ponicsan, Last Flag Flying is an update of sorts of Hal Ashby’s 1973 The Last Detail. Ashby’s feature, also based on a book penned by Ponicsan, took place in the height of the Vietnam War; Linklater’s is set in 2003 and follows three Vietnam veterans: Larry aka “Doc” (Steve Carell), a widower who has lost his only son in the Iraq war, and his two comrades and old friends who help him pick up and bury the body, Sal (Bryan Cranston) and Richard (Laurence Fishburne).
War may feel like uncharted territory in Linklater’s oeuvre, but Last Flag Flying promised to be an intriguing experiment. The vets’ journey turns into an opportunity to reflect on the continuities between two senseless wars (Iraq and Vietnam); their comradeship bears more than one similarity with the masculinities explored in Everybody Wants Some!!, and conversations serve as powerful healing mechanisms as they did for other characters populating the director’s canon (think of Jesse and Céline in the Before trilogy). Top all of that with a star-studded cast and the result should have been bulletproof: Carell, Cranston and Fishburne have the bravado necessary to embody the vets’ struggles, and make sure the audience engages with the drama shown on screen.
But this never really happens. Last Flag Flying lacks the organic flow of Linklater’s earlier gems, and its profound anti-war sentiment is lost in a script that seems more concerned with spoon feeding the audience some grand platitudes about the unresolved tensions of present-day America than it is with creating characters one can believe and care for. There are scenes when Marine-turned-reverend Richard comments on the country’s racial divisions and its rampant Islamophobia, there are others when atheist and drunkard Sal asks whether God really exists, and there’s Doc recurring question, and Last Flag Flying’s leitmotiv: why did they send my son to the desert, if Iraq – like Vietnam – posed no real threat to us?
It is not the number of themes touched upon by Linklater that’s the problem, but the way they are discussed. Cranston, Carell and Fishburne are a joy to watch whenever they resume their old-days banter, but as soon as the script hits political territory the dialogues become suddenly more effortful, clumsy and staged, delivered in an unnervingly didactic tone. “We’re a good country,” remarks Richard on their way to the burial. “But if you catch your government lying, that changes everything.”
What makes Linklater’s features so special is his ability to let the audience to take part in them. Watching Jesse and Céline talk in their nine-year-apart rendezvous, we feel as though we’re there with them; watching Boyhood’s Mason progress through his life, we feel like we’re growing up with him. We can identify with Linklater’s characters because the film understands and stays true to them – never mind how distant their struggles may be from our own. Amiable as it may be, Last Flag Flying has none of that. The most calculated feature of Linklater’s memorable opus keeps the audience at an arm’s length, and never really invites us in.