If looking back teaches us one thing, it is that the past is a strange and foreign land. If we are to ascribe to the films of Richard Linklater a mission statement, however, it would be to make that land familiar. Or rather, familiar enough.
Linklater is a director who trades in nostalgia, an emotion generated by images and objects that are tantalisingly familiar, and yet achingly inaccessible. From capturing the memories that will later be tinted with a rose-coloured nostalgia – as in Before Sunrise, or Everybody Wants Some! – or having characters watch events play out and turn into memories before their very eyes – as in Patricia Arquette’s matriarch in Boyhood – Linklater is at his most comfortable when bringing the past within touching distance of an audience.
In theory, then, Last Flag Flying, his sequel to Hal Ashby’s 1973 film The Last Detail, should see him on home territory. We follow three Vietnam veterans, reuniting in the near past of 2003, and reflecting on the experiences that shaped them thirty years before, thus generating a form of memory that is twice-removed from the viewer. With the audience re-engaging with their experiences of nearly 15 years ago, and the characters reaching further back into decades gone by, Linklater is on familiar territory. What a pity, then, that the film remains little more than a by-the-numbers affair, which quickly becomes sentimental, losing any political clout in a maudlin sensibility.
Steve Carell plays ‘Doc’, who was court-martialed and imprisoned as a young man serving in the military. Now, thirty years later, an America still reeling from the shock of 9⁄11 has embarked on another seemingly-pointless war, which has resulted in Doc’s son’s death in Baghdad. With the narrative thrust justly provided, Doc seeks out his old marine buddies – Sal (Bryan Cranston) and Mueller (Laurence Fishburne) – to help him escort his son’s body back home.
“With Last Flag Flying, Linklater is too concerned with wallowing in the past, rather than reflecting on it”
Naturally this is easier said than done, and – amid some terse conversations with Colonel Willetts, an anaemic attempt at an antagonist played by Yul Vazquez – the men are forced to take the train through the Eastern states, accompanying the young man’s body. Lo and behold – another buddy movie.
As usual, Linklater delivers punchy dialogue, with the cracks coming thick and fast, but there is a sense that he is abandoning the naturalistic approach he took with Boyhood for a more contrived script. The three characters have clearly-defined roles within the narrative: Carell’s performance is the most impressive, with a willfully-restrained embodiment of Doc, who stands quietly at the periphery of most scenes. It’s a welcome contrast to Cranston, who ratchets up his wise-cracking boozehound to the n-th degree, until Sal is little more than a caricature of what war does to the individual. Linklater indulges this character far too much, and it quickly becomes tiresome. Fishburne delivers his lines with his usual gravitas – fitting since Mueller has reformed since his old days, and is now an ordained minister – but there is little out of the ordinary in his performance.
Where the film really disappoints, however, is in its attempts to form a critique of the political environment of the early-noughties, in particular American foreign policy. The action occurs against the backdrop of Saddam Hussein’s capture, less than a year into a war in Iraq that would leave hundreds of thousands dead. Characters begin to make motions towards criticism of the state, but Linklater always has them pull back, segueing instead to discussions about Eminem or the rapidly-developing cell phone technology.
It has been more than 14 years since the beginning of the Iraq War, and 16 years since September 11th – we are now further away from that point in time than the characters in the film are from the fall of the Berlin Wall. It’s more than enough time for a director to take on the challenge of critical reflection, to engage with our own recent past, but sadly Linklater fails to deliver. His characters always stop short of saying anything outright, and – as a result – they don’t say anything at all. With Last Flag Flying, he is too concerned with wallowing in the past, rather than reflecting on it.
Dir: Richard Linklater. Script: Richard Linklater; Darryl Ponicsan. Starring: Steve Carell; Bryan Canston; Laurence Fishburne. 124 minutes