NEW YORK — There aren’t any battles or firefights in “Last Flag Flying.” But director Richard Linklater, a master at capturing the emotional nuances of intimate human relations, acknowledges that his new film is probably the closest he’ll ever come to making a war film. Or antiwar film, as it were. While not as searing as Hal Ashby’s “Coming Home” or Oliver Stone’s “Born on the Fourth of July,” “Last Flag” takes stock of the lasting physical, emotional, and psychological scars suffered by Vietnam veterans.
The film, which opens in the Boston area on Friday, centers on three vets who unexpectedly reunite decades later, after one of them loses his son in the Iraq War. But it’s “really about the ways these two wars” — Vietnam and the extended post-9/11 conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan — “talk to each other and echo one another,” said the laid-back, slightly scruffy Linklater, a day after the movie’s premiere this fall at the New York Film Festival. “It’s really about the guys’ reflection of the war — the long-term effects and how these guys changed, how they were affected, what the experience of war does to you.”
Set in December 2003, “Last Flag” centers on Steve Carell’s sad-eyed, grief-stricken Larry “Doc” Shepherd, who’s just lost his son, a Marine, in the line of duty in Baghdad. The middle-aged ex-Navy medic travels to Virginia to seek out his old comrades, Sal (Bryan Cranston), now a foul-mouthed, irascible drunk who runs a dilapidated dive bar, and Richard “The Mauler” Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), a reformed bad-boy who found God and family and became a minister.
Doc asks Sal and Mueller, former Marines, to accompany him while he retrieves the body of his son at Dover Air Force Base and transports him for burial at Arlington National Cemetery. But after the trio meets his son’s close friend and fellow Marine, Lance Corporal Washington (J. Quinton Johnson), new information comes to light that changes Doc’s perspective, and he decides to bury his son in his hometown of Portsmouth, N.H., with Sal and Mueller joining him on the journey. What ensues is a road-trip buddy film in which old wounds are reopened and the men reckon with the traumas of their past.
“We don’t really see a lot of war movies that deal with the people who are left behind, the people who are affected by the deaths of those who serve and the sacrifices that they make,” said Fishburne, at a press conference a day before the film’s premiere.
Co-written by Linklater and Darryl Ponicsan, “Last Flag” shares its roots with Hal Ashby’s celebrated 1973 film “The Last Detail,” starring Jack Nicholson and Otis Young as jaded Navy seamen escorting Randy Quaid’s young officer from Virginia to a naval prison in New Hampshire after he committed a petty crime. Ponicsan wrote the acclaimed 1969 debut novel that Robert Towne adapted to bring “Last Detail” to the screen. The big-screen version of “Last Flag” is loosely based on Ponicsan’s 2005 novel of the same title.
However, both Ponicsan and Linklater insist the new film is not intended as a sequel.
In penning the script, they altered the characters’ names, military affiliations, backgrounds, and shared experiences. Whereas Nicholson and Young’s Buddusky and Mulhall were Navy men, Sal and Mueller are hardened Marine vets. “We never talked about ‘Last Detail’ with the actors,” said Linklater, who was widely praised for directing two inventive sequels with the “Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight” indie trilogy.
While “Last Flag,” Linklater said, “shares some DNA in common with [‘Last Detail’]” — the road-trip format, the piercing humor, its characters’ ambivalence about a divisive war — he added that “adapting it away from the books, we got to add all these Vietnam hallmarks as a background that’s much more specific and impactful in their lives.”
Linklater and Ponicsan had first hoped to get “Last Flag” off the ground more than a decade ago, but the project failed to materialize. “At the time, Rick said, ‘I think we’re too close to the events of 9/11 and the Iraq War. This is going to work better several years from now,’” Ponicsan recalled. “I thought, well, that’s the end of that. But Rick never gave up on it.”
“I think its time had come,” said Linklater, who was Oscar-nominated for his landmark 2014 coming-of-age film “Boyhood.” “When wars are viewed in retrospect, they’re more palatable to examine. Had this come out in ’05, it [would have been] a little too hot a subject.”
Ponicsan believes that Vietnam and Iraq reflect each other in fundamental ways — misbegotten conflicts that turned into quagmires perpetuated by government dishonesty. “America was one way before the Vietnam War, and after that, it was a totally different way. And it was all because of the lies. We lost 58,000 men, and the government is saying, ‘But they didn’t die in vain.’ And I’m saying, well, sure they died in vain. It was a terrible mistake, and it was truly unforgivable. Then, lo and behold, 9/11 happens, Bush goes into Iraq, and the rest of us who lived through Vietnam are saying, ‘Whoa! You’re doing it again!’ ”
Still, after speaking with a Marine from his home state of Texas, Johnson (“Everybody Wants Some!!,” “Hamilton”) says he learned that politics and the mission ultimately don’t matter when soldiers are facing life-and-death circumstances. “There’s a bond that’s created when you’re out there with these other men,” he says. “You’re doing it for your brothers.”
That internal conflict between indictment of the wars and love of one’s brotherhood is embodied by Sal, whom Linklater calls “the cognitive dissonance on that subject.”
‘When wars are viewed in retrospect, they’re more palatable to examine. Had this come out in ’05, it [would have been] a little too hot a subject.’
“I think a lot of people who serve in our military are very patriotic, love their country, believe deeply that they’re fighting for freedom, democracy, justice,” Linklater said. “Then when you find out that those ideas are more complicated than you first thought, you can come out of that experience with a pretty intense love-hate relationship with all of it.”
In the end, the way Linklater and Ponicsan see it, “Last Flag” becomes a contemplation of veracity and its value — as exemplified by the men’s visit, while traveling through Boston, with the elderly mother of a fallen comrade.
“Sal is carrying around this internal conflict about what is truth. What does it even mean?,” Linklater said. “Are countries honest with their people? Is the mission forthright with what the real mission is to these soldiers? Truth is a really blunt instrument.”
“Is the lie better sometimes?” Ponicsan wondered. “Or, on a personal level, are you better off living the truth? That’s a question that’s up for debate.”Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.