What makes a Richard Linklater film? Few directors have a filmography as varied as his, and yet almost all of Linklater’s films are distinctly his own. Many have a deep-seeded nostalgia, or a natural approach to dialogue that favors meandering character conversations over any sort of plot. But the connective tissue for Linklater’s oeuvre is that he likes to delve into how humans get by and make it through the everyday. Whether it’s showing a teacher breaking through the banality of his unwanted job with a passion for music, the incremental changes a child makes on his way to adulthood, or teenagers taking a stand against authority on the last day of school, Linklater wants to investigate the choices and sometimes lies that we tell ourselves to get through the day.
His latest film, Last Flag Flying, makes perfect sense for Linklater’s usual interests and motifs. Similarly to how his last film, Everybody Wants Some!! was a spiritual successor to his Dazed and Confused, Last Flag Flying is also a sequel of sorts to Hal Ashby’s 1973 film The Last Detail. Both films are adapted from novels by Darryl Ponicsan, and despite very similar characters from Ashby’s original, the names and histories of these characters have been changed for this adaptation. But The Last Detail had a style to it that makes sense for Linklater to latch onto, as it’s easy to see how a trip taken by three friends focusing on their conversations sounds exactly like the type of film Linklater would make. Yet it’s the naturalism that The Last Detail had and that Linklater thrives in that is somehow missing in Last Flag Flying, which makes it often feel unauthentic, corny, and generally uninspired.
Set in the shadow of the Iraq war in 2003, Last Flag Flying follows three Vietnam veterans dealing with the casualties of the latest military debacle. Reunited after decades apart, Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston), Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), and Larry “Doc” Shepard (Steve Carell) come together to help Doc bury his only son, who died in Iraq. Angry at the government and the military, Doc decides to take his son out to the care of the Marines and into his own hands, planning to bury him next to his also recently deceased wife. Along the way, Sal, Richard, and Doc reminisce about their past traumas in Vietnam, drudge up old dynamics, and compare the current war to their own.
Linklater and Ponicsan began work on this screen adaptation back in the mid-2000s, and Last Flag Flying certainly does feel about a decade too late, as if it would make more sense coming out alongside Stop-Loss or Rendition. At this point, the points being made in Last Flag Flying have already been stated elsewhere and are extremely passé.
Despite this, getting three great actors together and having them play off each other – especially with Linklater’s dialogue – should be more enjoyable than it is here. For one of the few times in the writer/director’s career, his writing is stiff and contrived. Carell fares the best, but that’s due to his reserved, sullen reaction to his son’s death. Cranston, however, is brash, frustrating and loud – yet this is played as humorous and part of the character’s “charm.” Cranston excels when he can play toned down in the way Carell is here, but when he’s turned up to 11, without any reins to pull him in, he can be hard to deal with.
When Last Flag Flying does have moments of quiet and reflection and camaraderie with these three leads, the film can fall into the best of what Ashby’s film and Linklater’s writing can do. These moments mostly come from Doc, like when he points out that he might have lost one son in the war, but Osama bin Laden lost two. It’s moments like this that feel fresh in the banality, where the characters can show love towards each other, or respond to situations the audience knows in refreshing new ways. But for Linklater and films about the war in general, Last Flag Flying is too conventional and dated to come off as anything other than a disappointing commentary.