It’s pretty fascinating that Richard Linklater’s Last Flag Flying – the opening night movie at the New York Film Festival – is technically a sequel to Hal Ashby’s 1973 movie, The Last Detail. I found this so interesting that I wound up watching both of these films in the same day and, well, there’s not much correlation. Now, you should watch The Last Detail because it’s great (and Jack Nicholson is strutting around the whole movie like his life depends on it), but not as any kind of precursor to watching Last Flag Flying. The two movies don’t fit together at all and was never the point. It’s kind of the same situation we had with Manhunter and The Silence of the Lambs: they’re both adaptations of connected books, yet the two movies have really nothing to do with each other.
In The Last Detail, Billy (Nicholson) and Mule (Otis Young) are assigned by the Navy to take a young seaman, Larry (Randy Quaid), to a prison in Maine because he attempted to steal $40 from a charity box. Both Nicholson and Quaid would receive Academy Award nominations (Nicholson wasn’t particularly thrilled that he lost) and the movie is today considered a classic. But a lot was changed from Darryl Ponicsan’s book. One big change: in the book, Nicholson’s character dies.
When Ponicsan wrote Last Flag Flying in 2005, he decided to bring Nicholson’s character back to life in a Mark Twain, “the reports of my death are greatly exaggerated,” sort of way. Which sets up Linklater’s Last Flag Flying, which brings back the three main characters from The Last Detail, only with some new names and much different relationships.
The film is set in 2003 and Steve Carell plays Larry (I truly think this is one of Carell’s finest performances to date; his portrayal is understand and kind), now referred to most of the film as “Doc.” Bryan Cranston steps into Nicholson’s role, only his name is now Sal and he owns the dive-iest of Norfolk dive bars. Laurence Fishburne plays Mueller, a former hellraiser turned minister.
Doc makes a surprise visit to Sal’s bar (it takes Sal a few minutes to recognize him) and the two catch up over many, many beers. The next hungover morning, Doc asks Sal to drive him to unspecified location, which turns out to be Mueller’s church. The three haven’t seen each other since the Vietnam War and they don’t have a whole lot in common anymore. (Sal is not a big fan of God.) Doc then reveals that his son, Larry Jr., was killed in Iraq and is here to ask Sal and Mueller to accompany him while he picks up his son’s body.
It’s evident these three have a much deeper relationship than they did in The Last Detail. It’s never specifically said (Linklater leaves enough puzzle pieces lying around to get to the gist of what happened), but these three saw action together in the war and something terrible happened.(Also different from the first film: Sal and Mueller were Marines and only Doc was in the Navy; looking this up later I learned Marines use Navy medics in combat situations.) This was not Doc stealing $40 from a charity box. Again, it’s vague, but it’s implied the three were using morphine recreationally, and when someone really needed it, they were out and it was Doc who took the fall and served time for their crimes. Truthfully, I like the way this is handled. I hate sloppy exposition and for one of them to just come out and say it would be unusual. Family members of mine who served in Vietnam absolutely do not talk about it. And for one of them to pull a “remember when” would be disingenuous.
At its heart, Last Flag Flying is a road trip movie and very much in the spirit of the Before trilogy – only with three middle-aged men instead of two lovers. This isn’t an action packed film – the most exciting physical thing this trio does is buy themselves some flip phones – and it’s extremely talky. (I mean, it is a Linklater film.) This is the kind of movie that could also easily be a great play.
But the relationship between Carell, Fishburne, and Cranston feels genuine. It’s weird, they really don’t click at first – like, I suspect, a lot of people wouldn’t after having not seen each other in 30 some years – but by the end these three very different people have a bond. And it culminates with a pretty heartbreaking scene.
It’s also an oddly timed film, one that feels like something that would have come out maybe five years ago when Iraq War movies were more common. With out current political situations, Iraq seems, sadly, pretty far down the list now. And it’s certainly not the main focus of the film – the relationship between Doc, Sal and Mueller is the heart of all this – but it is kind of jarring in a, “Oh yeah, that, too” kind of way. But Linklater gives a wonderful platform for Carell and Fishburne and Cranston to just act and it’s pretty great. And, yes, it’s pretty hard not to tear up by the end and is a worthy follow-up to a great movie (that it doesn’t have all that much to do with anyway).
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