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Richard Linklater's Last Flag Flying Is a Portrait of War's Muddled Aftermath

Sal, Doc, and Mueller  arrive for Doc's son's body.
Sal, Doc, and Mueller arrive for Doc's son's body. Screencap courtesy of Amazon Studios
Several people, including two editors, have asked me if I liked Richard Linklater’s latest film, Last Flag Flying. "Like" is not really the word I would have used to describe the experience. If I had to explain it simply and plainly, it was like going to a good funeral. It was sad, it was long, and I probably would have been happier doing many other things, but ultimately it was something holy to treasure no matter how much it gutted me.

Last Flag Flying is based on Darryl Ponicsan’s 2005 novel follow-up to his previous novel, The Last Detail, adapted into Hal Ashby Oscar-nominated 1973 film co-starring Jack Nicholson and Randy Quaid. It’s the story of Larry "Doc" Shepherd (Steve Carrell), a Vietnam veteran who has recently lost his wife to breast cancer and his son to the second Gulf War. Doc seeks out former peers from his tour, both of whom were partially responsible for his two-year stint in the brig and bad-conduct discharge, in hopes of emotional support burying his son.

These are Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston), who now owns a bar and gleefully has sunk into substance abuse and nihilism; and Richard “the Mauler” Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), who's left behind his wild lifestyle to become a pastor. The three friends embark on a road trip to meet Doc’s son and see him properly interred. Along the way it becomes clear that Doc’s son, Larry, did not die the hero’s death that was reported to his father, but was instead killed by a random act of murder as he and his squad stopped for Cokes in Baghdad. The lie the government told Doc, coupled with his own anger about the pointlessness of both Vietnam and the second Gulf War, turn a formerly kind and easygoing man into one determined to remove his son from the military’s grasp and bury him as a civilian at home rather than in his uniform in Arlington.

“Truth is a fucking blunt instrument in this world" — 'Last Flag Flying' director Richard Linklater

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At its core, Last Flag Flying is a film about truth, and whether or not there is a moral lie. Doc believes his son went down fighting as we imagine heroes die. The truth, and the fact that service and delivering school supplies in a hostile environment is quite heroic, escapes him until the very end of the film. Instead the military weaves him a tale both in order to comfort a grieving father and to glorify its own muddy war. Near the end, the trio discover the same lie was delivered three decades prior to the mother of another of their Vietnam buddies, and the decision is made to let the lie stand rather than burden an elderly woman with the same pain Doc feels. There are no right answers either way, and that seems to be the point.

“Truth is a fucking blunt instrument in this world,” Linklater said in a brief interview last week at the Hotel Zaza. “There’s times when absolutely transparency is necessary, but most of life is lived in this grey area. I read a study a long time ago that we lie between ten and 18 times a day. It’s social lubricant. We need little things to get us through society. But then there’s big lies. Like motivating a whole country to go to war. The truth of these situations are so incomprehensible that’s it’s easier to get people to rally around one big lie. Let’s just say they have weapons of mass destruction. Let’s just say we were attacked in the Gulf of Tonkin.”

The film is definitely a character study. Personally, I found Cranston a bit much, overacting his role as everyone’s damaged drunken uncle, but Fishburne and Carrell are truly marvels on the screen. I’ve always been pissed Carrell was not nominated for Best Supporting Actor for Little Miss Sunshine, and I have a feeling Last Flag Flying might be the movie that rectifies that empty trophy space on his mantle. Doc is just…good. He’s a good man in the hands of a bad world, and as we follow him on his quest for sense regarding his lost family we are comforted by his inherent desire to be as good as that world allows.

“We want to think that when someone dies, especially like this, it was for some bigger cause,” said Linklater. “Frankly, life doesn’t often offer the bigger meaning.”

Linklater doesn’t get nearly enough credit for the subtlety of his films. There are so many little things going on in Last Flag Flying I don’t think I could list them all. I love the way Doc is often framed with Mueller and Sal on either side of him, constantly alluding to the idea of a devil and angel tempting the soul of man. I love that Mueller carries the flag from Larry’s coffin throughout the film, only handing it over to Sal in a heartfelt ceremony at Larry’s eventual funeral. I love that in a scene where Sal and Doc sleep in Larry’s room the day before the funeral, Sal, the cynic, has a Patriots poster above his head and Doc, the man who has lived this conflicted existence regarding the military, has a Kill ‘Em All poster above his. These visual touches weave a complex emotional narrative throughout the film.

Last Flag Flying is not an easy film to like. It’s about how war, its motivation and its costs, can’t really be summed up in an easy way. You can hate the battle but love the soldier. You can lie to boy why he’s there and to a father to ease his heart. In the end, what was the “right” answer depends on what eases your broken heart.

“I think countries mourn and grieve the way individuals do,” said Linklater. “I think we’re finally starting to do that for these wars.”

Last Flag Flying opens this Friday, November 3.
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Jef Rouner is a contributing writer who covers politics, pop culture, social justice, video games, and online behavior. He is often a professional annoyance to the ignorant and hurtful.
Contact: Jef Rouner