What Donald Trump fails to comprehend with his censure of recent NFL protests, but which Richard Linklater’s Last Flag Flying admirably understands, is that patriotism comes in many forms – including, sometimes, criticism of our most hallowed institutions for failing to uphold our most cherished values. It’s a simple, yet bedrock, component of American democracy, intertwined with our freedom of speech, and it’s anything but a threat to our national unity; on the contrary, it’s what binds us together, makes us stronger, and ultimately affords us a more positive path forward. It is, in short, fundamental to what makes us who we are – and great.
The opening night selection of this year’s New York Film Festival (debuting Thursday, September 28), Last Flag Flying couldn’t be more timely – which is more than a bit surprising, given that it’s a long-delayed sequel, replete with a new (all-star) cast. Based on the 2005 Darryl Ponicsan novel of the same name, Linklater’s film continues the tale begun by Hal Ashby’s 1973 gem The Last Detail, in which officers Billy “Badass” Buddusky (Jack Nicholson) and Richard “Mule” Mulhall (Otis Young) are tasked with transporting young sailor Larry “Doc” Meadows (Randy Quaid) from Norfolk, Virginia to Maine, where he’s scheduled to serve a petty theft-related prison sentence. That trip almost immediately goes sideways when Buddusky and Mulhall take pity on Meadows and decide to show him a good time in the metropolises along their way, including Washington D.C. and New York City. What ensues are misadventures as amusing and melancholy as they are famously profane, with Ashby’s ramshackle classic attaining notoriety during its initial release for a then-shocking flood of terms and phrases one wouldn’t dare speak in front of their mother.
Altering its characters’ names but otherwise operating as a more-or-less faithful follow-up, Last Flag Flying picks up with its Vietnam vets in 2005, with the trio decades older, if not considerably wiser. The once-badass Buddusky is now referred to as Sal (Bryan Cranston), and he runs a Norfolk bar where he still acts like a disheveled lout and drinks like a fish. His wasting-away-in-alcohol-ville existence is interrupted by the appearance of mild-mannered Doc (Steve Carell), who soon takes him to see Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), aka Mulhall, now working as a pastor at a nearby church. While holy-man Mueller is far from thrilled to be reunited with his Marine compatriots, Sal is over the moon, given that he views this turn of events as an opportunity to relive his serviceman glory days – in particular, their former East Coast road-tripping escapades.
That desire never quite dies, but it’s complicated by the real reason for Doc’s arrival – his 21-year-old son Larry Jr. has just been killed in Baghdad during the Iraq war, and he wants his former friends to accompany him as he retrieves the body and buries it at Arlington. After Mueller’s wife forces him to do the Christian (i.e. right) thing and join the troupe, the three men venture to the Delaware base where Doc’s son has arrived, only to discover – via Larry Jr.’s squadmate and best friend Washington (J. Quinton Johnson) – that he didn’t die in heroic battle as the military claimed, but in an ambush by a lone gunman while trying to buy sodas at the local market. The truth stings, the lie makes it worse, and though Sal manipulates the situation so that Doc hears how Larry Jr. really perished, Linklater leaves open-ended the virtuousness of that act. Now knowing the facts, Doc forgoes a military ceremony, and endeavors with his pals to get Larry Jr.’s coffin back to Portsmouth, New Hampshire so he can lie beside his dearly departed mother.
Their (repeat) journey north to New England includes pit stops at bus stations, bars and diners in New York, and a home in Boston where they meet with an elderly woman (Cicely Tyson) whose son’s death was at least partly caused by Sal, Doc and Mueller. Together, they form something of a holy PTSD trinity – Mueller the true believer; Sal the dissolute skeptic; Doc the decent, grieving innocent – with the first two often acting as the angel and devil perched on the third’s sorrowful shoulders. Arguments quickly abound about the existence of God and the falsehoods that cost so many lives in both Vietnam and Iraq, all as Sal attempts to recapture a yesteryear that seems long in the rearview mirror and yet just as relevant as ever. They’re broken men, Sal boasting a steel plate in his head, Mueller wielding a cane to compensate for his busted leg, and Doc suffering from crippling internal wounds. And they’re reckoning with a past that they desperately want to forget, atone for, or revisit – often at the same time.
Such a description makes Last Flag Flying sound like a lament, and to be sure, Linklater’s unfussy direction – marked by fleeting glimpses of an American landscape that’s alternately barren and bustling, and uniformly beautiful – enhances the material’s melancholy soul. His story is rich in empathy, and to its immense credit, it casts its protagonists in authentic human terms, rather than as symbolic embodiments of ideals or arguments. However, with Cranston cursing like a swashbuckler in a semi-growl that makes him sound exasperated at any hint of conformity, Fishburne acting as his responsible-adult foil, and Carell fitting neatly in-between them as the action’s scarred heart, considerable humor also springs forth from these old friends’ interactions.
Squabbling with brotherly gusto, and with love underscoring even their most sarcastic quips, the characters resonate as crusty comrades who share a bond forged through hardship. In a film full of them, no scene proves more hilariously engaging than Sal, Doc, Mueller and Washington doubling over with laughter while conversing about Vietnam whorehouses and Sal’s once-staunch, now limp, member; Carell’s final lines, squeaked through teary guffaws, is pure magic. Though it sincerely confronts heartache and remorse, the film operates as a funny ode to both fondly looking backwards and heartily embracing the future – the latter of which is epitomized by conversations about rap music, the Internet, and cell phones, which Sal convinces the group to buy, and then takes delirious delight in using.
Led by performances that channel, rather than imitate, their predecessors, Last Flag Flying embeds itself in the prickly emotions that come from facing one’s own mortality, grief, regret and military service. It’s a maturely complex portrait of reunited vets that celebrates both duty (Sal views his Marine Corps stint as the finest time of his life) and disobedience, especially in the face of authority (which, from Yul Vazquez’s arrogant Colonel to George W. Bush himself, is not to be trusted). The means by which these three men salute Doc’s fallen son inevitably involves the Stars and Stripes. Yet Linklater’s film recognizes that true patriotism lies not in the flag itself, but in the willingness to hold up that which is best about our country, rail against that which is flawed, and to always stand, shoulder-to-shoulder, in times of greatest need, with our brothers – whatever their race, creed or color – in a spirit of compassionate camaraderie.
In that way, it’s as quietly anti-Trump as they come.