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Film review: Last Flag Flying

Richard Linklater’s new film explores the relationships between war and masculinity.

Richard Linklater rose to fame in his films from the early 90s, 1991’s Slackers and 1993’s Dazed and Confused. His films are often realistic character portraits, no more so than 2014’s Boyhood, which was filmed over 12 years, documenting the life of one young boy.

Linklater’s new film ‘Last Flag Flying’ sees three men brought together again, after several decades. These men fought together in Vietnam, and for reasons that become apparent in the course of the film, are tied together for both good and bad reasons. This film is about the effects of war on individuals, as well as the effects of truth and lies on grief and suffering. The film functions as a loose sequel to an earlier film, The Last Detail from 1973, directed by Hal Ashby.  Based on a novel of the same name by Darryl Ponicsan, the earlier film stars Jack Nicholson, Otis Young, and Randy Quaid, telling a version of a story from the Vietnam days intimated in Last Flag Flying.

The film opens as a shy man, Larry ‘Doc’ Shepherd, enters a dive bar, owned by a seemingly brash and loud individual named Sal Nealon, who barely notices him, until it is revealed that they used to know each other, serving in Vietnam. The two find another of their colleagues Richard Mueller, now a preacher. Over a dinner the three discuss their lives and what has happened in the many years since they’ve seen each other.  In this conversation, Doc reveals that his son has been killed while serving in Iraq, and he asks his colleagues to join him in getting his son’s body. The film then becomes a road movie of sorts, as the three men travel across the country to make it back to New Hampshire in order to bury Doc’s son.

The performances from the three mains are excellent. Steve Carell’s quiet performance as Larry ‘Doc’ Shepherd is heartbreaking, a man beaten down by the difficulties he has faced. Laurence Fishburne plays the pastor, a conflicted individual, resolved to his new course in life. Bryan Cranston is very personable, drunken, good natured and generous. There is a definite sense of history between all three, as they vary between slightly awkward silences and fond reminiscences.

The problem with the film is that it seems that Linklater wants to have his cake and eat it, by creating a drama that aims to be straight down the middle of the political isle, acknowledging the human horrors of war, whilst denuding it of its politics. In a film about war and patriotism, the specifics of the wars are absent. In fact, though the film opens in 2003, just before Sadam Hussein is found in December of that year, many of the other details from that time are sketchy.  In fact, as the film continues, it becomes clear that Linklater is aiming to suggest that each war is simply a reply of the previous, neatly summarised in the line: ‘every generation has its own war’. This is dangerous territory, suggesting the inevitability of war, as if young people, particularly young men are always fated to die in battles they are estranged from. By making these abstract links between wars now and then, the experiences of war become timeless, removed from their historical contexts. Though there are points when it seems the film might start to think more deeply about what it means it serve in wars decided by governments and those in power, it never veers too far from a bland patriotism which equates serving in the military with loving your country.

Though this film has a stellar cast, and some nice performances from the supporting cast – J. Quinton Johnson as a young private is particularly good – its wishy-washy politics means that it does not really seem to be saying anything worthwhile.
Last Flag Flying is released in UK cinemas on 26 January 2018.