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In Richard Linklater’s Last Flag Flying, each generation’s war is a fresh tragedy

The “spiritual sequel” to The Last Detail asks how we can deal with casualties when we stop believing in the cause.

Bryan Cranston, Steve Carell, and Laurence Fishburne in Last Flag Flying
Bryan Cranston, Steve Carell, and Laurence Fishburne in Last Flag Flying.
Amazon Studios
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

“Every generation has its war,” sighs Sal (Bryan Cranston), stating the thesis of Last Flag Flying. “Men make the wars; wars make the men.”

History repeats itself, and Last Flag Flying is about the comedy and tragedy of that repetition. A so-called “spiritual sequel” to Hal Ashby’s 1973 film The Last Detail, Richard Linklater’s movie sets three veteran Marines who served together in Vietnam on the road to mourn and bury another generation, caught up in another dubious war. Even when they set each other laughing, the laughs fade to a sobering silence. The trio at the center of Last Flag Flying have never launched a war, but their lives are irrevocably marked by them nonetheless.

There might have been some honor in bearing those wounds for other wars, Last Flag Flying suggests, but for the wars in Vietnam and in Iraq, the moral lines are blurrier. The film grinds this axe, but it isn’t interested in offering any solutions. Instead, it puts a brave face on enormous sorrow, and in the end, it’s convinced that this is the way of the world now. Nothing will ever change.

Last Flag Flying follows three men trying to grapple with their past repeating itself

In 1973, The Last Detail followed three Navy men — two lifers and the sailor they’re assigned to escort to a prison — as they grow closer and find their moral calculus complicated by their encounters along the way. The movie is based on a novel of the same name by Darryl Ponicsan, who went on to write Last Flag Flying in 2005 and co-wrote the screenplay for this film with Linklater.

Linklater is no stranger to movies that involve a lot of talking between characters on a journey — see, for instance, his Before trilogy (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Before Midnight) — and so Last Flag Flying is familiar ground for him. The characters’ names and details are different from those in The Last Detail (hence the “spiritual sequel” designation), but a lot is the same, just years onward.

Laurence Fishburne, Bryan Cranston, and Steve Carell in Last Flag Flying
Laurence Fishburne, Bryan Cranston, and Steve Carell in Last Flag Flying.
Amazon Studios

Last Flag Flying is set in 2003, and former Marine Sal (Cranston) is running a bar in Norfolk that he sleeps at a lot of nights, with nothing better to do and what he refers to as a brain that’s been “scrambled” by his experiences decades earlier in Vietnam. One day, Larry (Steve Carell) — or Doc, as his buddies used to call him — shows up at the bar and asks Sal, whom he hasn’t seen since the war, if he’d be down for a road trip.

Sal is down for most anything. So they set out to see Richard (Laurence Fishburne), who in the time since he was known as “Mueller the Mauler” (owing to his voracious appetites in brothels during the war) has had a literal come-to-Jesus moment and become a preacher, long-married to Ruth (Deanna Reed-Foster).

The men find Richard preaching in his church and go home with him for lunch, where Larry reveals that he lost his wife to breast cancer earlier that year and his son, a Marine, to the Iraq War. His son’s body is scheduled to be delivered back to the States and buried. Would Richard and Sal come with him?

Laurence Fishburne and Deanna Reed-Foster in Last Flag Flying
Laurence Fishburne and Deanna Reed-Foster in Last Flag Flying.
Amazon Studios

That trip constitutes the remainder of the film, with its detours, stop-offs, and long conversations about the past, present, and future. Larry’s son’s best friend, a young Marine named Washington (J. Quinton Johnson), accompanies the men as they travel with the boy’s body, and his experience both mirrors theirs and extends it.

The connection between Richard, Larry, and Sal isn’t all that obvious — “They represent a dark period in my life,” Richard tells Ruth, when she insists that he go on the trip with the men anyhow because “you represent God” to them. The outlines of their connection to one another becomes more apparent as the film goes on, but the bigger story here is that they were all brought together by a war in which they came to have little faith, and now they’re going through the same experience again, but as older and more experienced men.

In Last Flag Flying, grief has no answers

Whether the film works for you largely depends on how much you can tolerate these three characters bouncing off one another for two hours. Richard is serious-minded and reticent to spend time around people who remind him of who he used to be before finding God. Sal is uncouth and an alcoholic, rootless and resigned to it, but nonetheless up for anything.

Larry, as played by Carell, is meek and reserved and could maybe be seen as a bit of a loser, but he emerges as the film’s real core — a man bereaved by life, struggling to keep his head above water, and wondering what might be next for him. “I don’t like the government anymore,” he tells the others; it involved both him and his son in wars that took their futures away from him, and he’s finally done.

Bryan Cranston and Steve Carell in Last Flag Flying
Bryan Cranston and Steve Carell in Last Flag Flying.
Amazon Studios

Last Flag Flying, in classic Linklater style, signals its time period by way of the songs playing on the radio as well as a running gag regarding cell phones, but it wants to make a point: This might be happening in 2003, but it already happened in 1973, and will happen again in 2033 and 2063, and presumably forever. “What was it all for?” the men ask each other. “They said they knew, and we believed them.”

Meanwhile, the men who return from war and the civilians who loved the ones who didn’t return have to keep telling one another convenient fictions about why they were there in the first place. Those fictions — that the young men died saving their comrades, instead of in more truthful but less obviously heroic ways — keep the lie going and prop up the powerful, but they also make life livable for the living. And maybe that act of compassion is worth fudging the truth?

Who knows? How can individuals cope with deaths in a war they’ve come to question? There’s no good answer, and Last Flag Flying doesn’t find one, either. It is a portrait more than a plot, more meditation than message, and though it sometimes slips into pedantry, it’s often moving. Grief is a national way of life now. The least we can do, Last Flag Flying says, is sit with one another through it and not try to offer any simple answers.

Last Flag Flying opens in theaters on November 2.