Richard Linklater on His New Film Last Flag Flying
Cranston, Carell, and Fishburne star in the director's most mature film to date
Facts, especially in a time of war, are not just a matter of right and wrong. When it comes to how we prop up our worldviews, writer/director Richard Linklater said, "The truth is a blunt instrument."
Our hazy relationship with truth and honesty is at the core of his latest film, Last Flag Flying, which may well be the beginning of a new chapter for the director. His earliest works – Slacker, Dazed and Confused – were standard-bearers for the bright and brash young things of Nineties American indie cinema. With his Before trilogy, he delved into what it means to be an adult. Now, at age 57, he has made his most mature film to date, contending with mortality, responsibility, and old guilt. It is a film written with the experience of middle age. "It's a different view of the world," said Linklater. "There's a slow maturation going on."
Superficially, it appears speedy. The Austin director's last movie, 2016's Everybody Wants Some!!, was a harkening back to Linklater's first days in college, re-creating freshman life in Texas in the fall of 1980. That seems a long leap to three aging men taking a body home for burial, and Linklater concedes that his last film may be "the last gasp" of his films about youth. Yet for him, the distance between the two movies is short: Both deal with the poignancy of reminiscence. For Linklater, through the process of making the quasi-autobiographical Everybody Wants Some!!, "The 30-year-old relationships with the friends back then actually informed this."
When Linklater first announced he was making Last Flag Flying, everybody talked about it as a direct sequel to the 1973 classic The Last Detail. "Everybody except everybody near this movie," said Linklater. It was an understandable mistake. Hal Ashby's Oscar-nominated comedy-drama was based on the 1970 debut novel by Darryl Ponicsan, about two experienced sailors (Jack Nicholson and Otis Young) escorting a third (Randy Quaid) to Portsmouth Naval Prison. Thirty-five years later, Ponicsan reunited the characters for a second novel: three Vietnam veterans, dealing with the death of the son of one of their number. However, with this new film, even though he was adapting that later novel, Linklater said, "We were never setting out to make a sequel."
With his new film so far removed from the original film, Linklater said, "It begs the question, what is a sequel? Is The Silence of the Lambs a sequel to Manhunter? Different actor, different time, but it was the next story in Thomas Harris' series. So we never concerned ourselves with that, but other people did."
He called the links to Ashby's work "an Easter egg for film people," but he knew that his story had to stand on its own, without relying on its predecessor. At a test screening in Los Angeles, "We asked the audience, 'How many have seen The Last Detail?' Guess what the percentage was – and this was just the random public – six percent. Film people, everybody knows that movie. It's 100 percent of serious film people, but it's amazing how it's solidly a cult film."
The term spiritual successor is probably best applied – much as it was with Everybody Wants Some!! to Linklater's breakout commercial success, Dazed and Confused. So while the cadence of The Last Detail is there, Last Flag Flying is also different in details and broad strokes. In the original, and in both of Ponicsan's novels, all three main characters are sailors: Here hard-drinking Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston) and the rehabilitated Reverend Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne) are both ex-Marines – a defining character trait – while the mild-mannered "Doc" Shepherd (Steve Carell) is their old Navy buddy, a sailor who ended up in the brig for unstated sins that were far more theirs than his. It is the death of Doc's son in Iraq that brings them together again, as he flails to find someone who has an inkling of what he is going through.
Just as they process Doc's loss through their own grueling experience, so the latest war finds cultural echoes in the last. Linklater was a teenager when the U.S. withdrew from Vietnam, and grew up surrounded by what he saw as national PTSD. He said, "It kept us out of war in the Eighties, but enough time had gone on, and the amnesia set in where they could get away with it." In Iraq, he saw old patterns repeated. "The first time they started talking about it, I just went, 'You've got to be kidding me!?' To see it unfold in real time as an adult, and to echo back to something I remember as a kid."
Last Flag Flying is pointed about what it means to fight and die in a war, and what it means for those left living with that loss. Yet while the script by Linklater and Ponicsan dodges polemic, it inevitably had to thread some political needles. Linklater said, "It's a tonal challenge, for sure. You can digress and have these lectures, but that's not really interesting."
As the trio carry Doc's son home, they shoot the breeze and give half-glimpses of shared secrets, as opposed to the everyday load of little white lies (as Linklater calls them, "the social lubricant that keeps us all buzzing around and doing OK with each other") and big lies. "Societies need these group lies, that are maybe about our origin, or about the purity of that war, or what we're founded on. You just have to buy into some bigger myth, and it's important in how we define ourselves."
Those dilemmas are sewn into the fabric of Last Flag Flying, as garrulous troublemaker Sal uses his "truth at all costs" mantra as a vicious tool: Meanwhile, the newly saintly reverend sees comfort in reinvention. Linklater said, "Everyone thinks they're in possession of the truth. But we're all a little ill-informed, and frankly none of us were there with things that we have so much passion about."
For Linklater, it's the question, not the answer, that is most revealing. He said, "I wanted to ask, 'What are these three guys' perspectives?' They're old friends, but as much shit as they're giving each other, there's a certain politeness. There's no, 'Who'd you vote for?' They're not digging that deep in certain areas." After all, he said, "There's nothing to be gained. I think we all know that you can't change other people's minds. You can screw with people, but can you really change someone's belief system?"
Last Flag Flying opens Friday in theatres. See Film Listings for review and showtimes.