Last Flag Flying: Linklater’s Weak, Verbose Film

Richard Linklater’s Last Flag Flying world premiered at the 2017 New York Film Fest, and will be released by Amazon in November.

The film tells the story of three Vietnam War vets, who reunite after 30 years, embarking on a bittersweet road trip to bury a young Marine killed in the Iraq War.

The trio is headed by New Hampshire family man Larry “Doc” Shepherd (Steve Carell), who surprises alcoholic former Marine Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston) when he shows up at his bar in Norfolk, Virginia.

Together the duo visit their formerly wild comrade-in-arms Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne) at the church where he now serves as pastor.

After Doc reveals that his son, a Marine, has been killed in Iraq, he asks his two friends to accompany him on a road trip to attend the young man’s burial at Arlington Cemetery.

When the vets arrive at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, where the remains have been sent, they meet the young Marine’s best friend, Lance Corporal Charlie Washington (J. Quinton Johnson), who casts doubt on the official story of how Larry Jr. died.

Stunned by the news, Doc decides to bury his son near the family home in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Accompanied by Washington, the three vets escort the casket on a north-bound train, debating the existence of God, reminiscing about their tour of duty in Vietnam and revealing a dark secret that still haunt each of them. After a stopover in New York City, the men visit the mother of a fallen comrade in Boston, then proceed to Doc’s hometown, where Sal and Mueller don their dress blues as Doc says goodbye to his son for the last time.

Sharply uneven, Linklater’s latest feature is sharply uneven. In moments, the film is a thoughtful and serious road movie; in others, it brims with humor, melancholy and regret as it examines the lasting effect of choices made in times of war.

Last Flag Flying stars three talented, Oscar-nominated actors: Oscar nominee Steve Carell (Best Actor, Foxcatcher, 2014; The Big Short, “The Office”), Emmy winner and Oscar nominee Bryan Cranston (Best Actor, Trumbo , 2015; “Breaking Bad,” The Infiltrator ), Oscar nominee Laurence Fishburne (Best Actor, What’s Love Got to Do with It , 19930.

They are joined by Yul Vazquez ( Captain Phillips , The Infiltrator ), J. Quinton Johnson ( Everybody Wants Some !! , “Hamilton”), Deanna Reed-Foster ( Southside with You , “Chicago Fire”), and Oscar nominee Cicely Tyson (Best Actress, Sounder , 1972).

Last Flag Flying is a step down for director Richard Linklater, known for such screen gems as Boyhood , Before Sunrise , Dazed and Confused.  The scenario is co-written by Linklater and Darryl Ponicsan, based on the novel by Ponicsan, who had also penned The Last Detail, made into a far superior movie, starring Jack Nicholson, in 1973.

Richard Linklater still vividly remembers his first impressions after reading Darryl Ponicsan’s 2005 novel Last Flag Flying 12 years ago. “I immediately thought, ‘Wow, this is a movie,’” says the five-time Oscar® nominee. “At that point, the war in Iraq was already a disaster and the book said a lot about these echoes of Vietnam in relation to Iraq. That really resonated for me. But mostly it was these three characters, Doc, Sal and Mueller. I loved those guys and wanted to dig into their lives to create a portrait of three middle-aged Vietnam vets.”

Linklater took a stab at adapting the book for the big screen in 2006. But that early version, set in 2005, didn’t pan out. “The timing wasn’t right,” Linklater recalls. “The culture back then wasn’t ready to deal with the Iraq War, which was happening right in front of us with no end in sight. When you think about the history of war movies, the best ones usually arrive years later, when people are finally ready to start examining what happened. When it was clear the film wasn’t happening back then, I remember talking to Darryl and telling him, ‘This film is going to come back around.’”

Linklater and Ponicsan finally revisited Last Flag Flying a couple of years ago, reworking the script in significant ways. “I remember thinking, ‘Instead of chasing current events, we can embrace it as a period film – we can set it in December 2003 at the time they catch Saddam Hussein,’” Linklater says. “We thought people might remember that moment, so it would ground the story in some kind of shared reality, which is going back to the original intent of the book.

Ponicsan, who served in the Navy in the 1960s, is also the author of The Last Detail, the basis for the acclaimed 1973 movie of the same name, which starred Jack Nicholson, the late Otis Young and Randy Quaid as Navy non-commissioned officers who make the most of a road trip on the way to a naval prison. Although Ponicsan conceived Last Flag Flying as a sequel to the earlier book, the revised screenplay veers significantly from the novel, particularly in terms of the central element of the characters’ shared experiences in Vietnam.

Asked if Last Flag Flying is a sequel to The Last Detail , Linklater says, “The short answer is no. But it’s a logical question because the book our movie is based on actually is a sequel to the book The Last Detail. The adaptation process has been a long journey, but where we’ve arrived is, I think, a unique place. Had the movie gotten off the ground back in ’05 or ’06, it might have been more of a sequel. The film didn’t happen back then, but instead of going away, it just lingered, like the war itself. Such great characters were not going away.”

Linklater then reached out to Ted Hope, the indie film producer ( 21 Grams , In the Bedroom , American Splendor ), the head of film production for Amazon Studios. “I’ve known Ted for a long time so I called him up, sent him the script and told him, I think this story’s time has come. I think our culture’s ready to examine the origins of our war in Iraq and what it felt like during this post-9/11 time, with the paranoia, the ‘What the hell is going on?’ feeling, and still trying to figure out what this war is about. I felt like the story would be more timely now and Ted agreed.”