Last Flag Flying, from its title to the author of the book to the three central characters to the entire milieu and even down to specific places (from Virginia to New Hampshire, and mostly by train), cant help but be compared and measured up to The Last Detail, Hal Ashby and Robert Towne's towering work of early 70s/Vietnam era tragic-comedy about two Navy officers taking a man to the brig for a petty offense. I'm sure Linklater as a filmmaker knows this all too well, so for him the challenge was to make it appealing to those people (like me) who have seen TLD about a dozen times and at the same time to those who have no idea what that is. It's a rarity in an American cinema that is defined today largely by franchise potential and nostalgic-fetishism for things of $ value to have a *spiritual sequel* at all, let alone one that works. Luckily for us, Linklater hits his dramatic goldmine here with an easy and effort that seems minimal. Which, of course, makes it all the more of an astonishing feat.
But here's the thing: Last Detail *is* different from this film in a key aspect- Marines. There was a line from "Badads" Buddusky in that (Nicholson, who this time is Cranston, more or less, maybe less prone to full-blown outbursts though anger is there) where he said in a moment of vocalizing his sympathy for Meadows, the poor sod off to the Brig: "Marines are assholes, you know that? It takes a sadistic temperament to be a Marine." I don't know if that was in Ponicsans original Last Detail book, but I have to wonder if that was on the mind of Linklater when he changed up the characters (I believe the book is a direct followup to the original characters, and for a time Nicholson and Freeman were sought to reprise and fill those LD roles respectively) - what happens when we see these 'sadistic' beings as older men, weathered over time after decades of Vietnam having kicked their asses? Larry is the first name of Carrells character, also an ex-brig man, though why he was put away is left carefully ambiguous, and yet he is so soft spoken... Most likely because at any moment one suspects he might just burst into tears as, in this story, he is a recent widower and even more recent father to a slain Marine from Iraq 2003.
So once again its a "road movie" as Cranston's Sal and Fishburne's Muller (close enough to Mule) are sought by Larry to help him with the funeral arrangements, chiefly to bring the body to New Hampshire. This is not, of course, by the wish of the Marines who want the guy buried in Arlington; how much the lieutenant or captain or whomever impresses this upon Larry is striking and could seem overbearing, but that's the point - this is as much about the system these men have equally embraced and have discovered is a massive hunk of s**t, so to spiel, when it comes to really reckoning with human beings. And along the way there's a train ride where characters grow closer and joke around (its genuinely funny behavior too, which is so welcoming because it's both disarming and helps to diffuse problematic tension with a younger marine who was Larry Jr's best friend in Iraq), and another stop off in New York where the trio miss the train and spend a night just soaking in the city. Where Last Detail may have shown our intrepid (notantibutclose) heroes going to a party to get high and hit on girls, or get drunk or go to a whorehouse, now with a reverend in their midst (Fishburne by the way has the finest material, dramatically, comedically, everything, in so long I cant even remember) they get these magical things called cell phones, at Sal's distinct insistence, and a stop at a diner.
All of this could be too much shoved in our faces like "eh eh, remember that, remember this," but it doesn't work that way. This is a director so confident in his material and his actors that the pace is perfect; it reflects this time that has to balance how Larry is still in a vulnerable place (also the marine friend too who knows some things that lead to an awkward admission in front of the captain character), but trying to be among human beings who can genuinely comfort him and make him laugh and also reckon with their own past ghosts. These are people who exist in their own story, and the shades to the previous Ponicsan adaptation are like icing on a sweet drama cake.
All the cast is excellent here, but aside from Cranston, who one expects will be stellar (and is, makes it seem so effortless too when of course this takes as much character work as Heisenberg did), Carrell quietly walks away with this. He doesn't say much but that's they key: he's never not listening, even when he is a little lost in grief, and he is easily the starkest difference from what Quaid did in TLD. This is someone who has nothing left but tries and actually succeeds in carrying himself with dignity (or as much as possible). Yet he can be forceful, like he is with the marines when he first sees his son and then finds out what happens to him. Its a masters class in director and actor clicking in a way that is so quiet you almost don't notice it, and that's the key - by the end, a typical letter-discovery reading scene feels so earned.
This is deeply felt, haunted, but not without a sense of humor. It's what I want out of movies
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