Last Flag Flying

Directed by Richard Linklater

You don’t have to know The Last Detail, the fondly remembered Hal Ashby classic of 1973, to appreciate this film, but whether you do or not will affect your viewing. It’s a (kind of) sequel, which gives it a lot to live up to, and there’s always the danger that sequels can so often be disappointing. Plus there’s the ominous fear that a movie about old buddies getting together again will be in the same dubious school of, e.g. Last Vegas, a film from which I was near to running screaming from the cinema, so awful a vision of humanity it was.

But first of all it’s not a true sequel – the guys have different names, their past is different. Darryl Ponicsán’s original novel on which Ashby’s film was based, had two seasoned, cynical soldiers escort a woeful young petty criminal (he stole money from charity box) to military prison They decide to show him life on his last night of freedom for 8 years. This follow-up takes a trio of new incarnations of those characters. ’Badass Buddusky’, one of Jack Nicholson’s greatest performances, is now Sal, played by with superb brio by Bryan Cranston, probably better than Nicholson could have managed without too much ‘JACK!’ taking over. Laurence Fishburne is Mueller, formerly Mule Mulhall. These two are very recognisably the earlier figures at heart, though Sal is now a crappy bar owner full of a combustible mixture of internal rage and unquenchable energy, and Mueller has mended his wild ways and become a highly respectable pastor. A gravitas that soon begins to unravel. Randy Quaid’s unforgettable woebegone convict Meadows has changed the most, now the thoughtful and law-abiding Larry (‘Doc’), yet another performance of tender subtlety by Steve Carell.

It’s 2003 and Doc’s marine son has been killed in Iraq, so some kind of longing for the camaraderie of people who understand has made him seek out his old buddies after many years to ask them to accompany him to his military funeral. Widowed, his life of quiet normality has crumbled. A road trip ensues that reignites the friendship between the three and turns up uncomfortable truths about what exactly dying for the flag might mean.

There are moments when the interaction takes off in the usual exhilarating Linklater fashion. He’s always been interested in looking at change, evolution, setting his characters off to alter or reveal new aspects of themselves through momentary whim or over years, the inevitable changes of age and time and circumstance. When it works, as it sometimes does here, it feels sincere and totally engrossing, as the old comradeship comes back to life.

The military provide a tasteful though slick scenario for reuniting family members with their coffined dead, in an enormous white hangar specially tricked out for the job. But the piety and respect is fatally undermined when the truth about the casual non-combatant nature of Larry Junior’s death, as opposed to the official heroic version, gets out. And here’s my first gripe. I had difficulty believing that an intelligent Vietnam veteran would be so shocked at the military’s glossing over of the facts. It was, after all,  at the time of Vietnam that cynicism about a war in a setting where the local people were not necessarily on your side reached its peak. Yet this is the premise on which Doc’s disillusionment depends. When he’s not allowed to take over the funeral arrangements himself, a crazed journey begins where the increasing empathy between the men is nicely shown but too often over-laced with zany comedy, and a sometimes plodding script and character-by-numbers lets down, in particular, Fishburne’s rather predictable Mueller. Worst moment is when he’s mistaken for a terrorist (Mueller – geddit?), which feels gratuitously thrown in just for a bit of action and a laugh . Nothing at all wrong with humour, it’s very beautifully used here often, arising naturally out of character or circumstance (e.g. Sal’s delight at the novelty of a mobile phone), but this and other instances are totally outside the mood of the film.

In contrast the film is at its absolute best in the scenes where Sal and Mueller go to visit the elderly mother of a young colleague who died in some not entirely explained way partly through their actions. Amazingly moving, deadly realistic playing by the 93-year-old Cicely Tyson (once Mrs Miles Davis !) lifts this section right out of what is becoming a caper/sentimental road movie rut. She actually brought tears to my eyes. Ironically the men take the same route as their military masters here and don’t spoil her illusions about her son’s final hours.

Sadly the finale feels both formulaic and muddled, and is in comparison so full of momentous righteousness and symbol that my tears, at least, were by then long dried.

Seen at LFF October 2017

 

 

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