Richard Linklater’s latest film is a loose sequel to Hal Ashby’s The Last Detail, dealing with the same trio of disaffected Vietnam veterans some forty years later. This time around, Jack Nicholson, Otis Young and Randy Quaid are replaced by Steve Carell, Laurence Fishburne and Bryan Cranston, who are now renamed as Larry “Doc” Shepherd, Richard Mueller and Sal Nealon. The three haven’t seen each other in decades when Doc draws them together at the beginning of the film, in 2003, when he reveals that his own son Larry Jr. has been killed in combat in Iraq, and that he wants them to come with him to Arlington to bury the body. When they arrive, however, they find that the body is still being held at Dover, in Delaware, prompting a extension to their road trip. When they arrive at Delaware, in turn, Doc insists upon looking at the face of his son, which has been utterly blasted apart by a bullet to the back of the head. After talking to Charlie Washington (J. Quinton Johnson), a friend of his son’s, Doc discovers that Larry Jr. was actually killed in sniper fire, rather than in combat, prompting a heated exchange with Lt. Col. Williss (Yul Vaquez) that culminates with Doc eschewing a military burial and carrying his son’s body back to his home in Portsmouth to be buried alongside his mother, who passed away from breast cancer a few months before.
While these characters are all drawn from The Last Detail, the original movie hangs over Last Flag Flying more as an structure of feeling more than a story, and a synecdoche for the entire corpus of films about Vietnam more generally. Never quite a period film about Vietnam or a period film about Iraq, Last Flag Flying is a period piece about the kinds of cinematic charisma that proliferated in the wake of Vietnam, along with the ways in which the fraternity of Vietnam veterans became inextricable from American cinema in the 1980s and 1990s. Just as historians often posit that the 1990s effectively ended with the attack on the World Trade Centre, so Linklater here suggests that the Iraq War forms the end point of this particular brand of charisma in American culture, and its dissonant relation to the American military-industrial complex. While it’s never entirely clear why Doc seeks out Mueller and Sal to accompany him on his road trip – the three men haven’t spoken in thirty years – it does gradually come to feel as if the film as a whole is trying to calibrate how well this post-Vietnam fraternity might speak to the sense of ennui in the wake of the War in Iraq.
From the very beginning, then, there’s something out of time about these three characters, meaning that the script it also quite clunky, contrived and hokey at moments, even or especially when the trio are trying to be sincere. Beyond a certain point, their charisma and camaraderie doesn’t belong in the 2000s, which is perhaps why it often seems as if something essential between them has inexorably vanished. At times, that makes Last Flag Flying feel more like a play than a film – there’s the same sense of being hermetically cloistered from the world outside – since the road trip is all that really holds the three men together. No doubt, post-Vietnam films were often about precisely this momentum, and the challenge of seguing the momentum of armed conflict back into the momentum of civilian life, but the propulsive force that drove so many cinematic Vietnam vets has also started to dissipate here as well, creating a strange combination of restlessness and aimlessness that sees the action move from one transit space to another without ever growing genuinely expansive or panoramic. Although they travel a long distance, these three men seem to be living in a shrinking world, giving even their most serious moments a touch of bathos, and ensuring that even the most dramatic beats are never too far away from a daggy dad joke.
For all those reasons, if often seems as if the collective charisma that might have once united them in an 1980s or 1990s movie has also started to dissolve and dissipate, resulting in one conversation after another in which there’s not quite enough affective energy to sustain them as a self-contained trio, or to recapture the shared solidarity of combat. In many ways, Linklater is the master of this drifting, aimless form of conversation, but his register is much more melancholy here than in any of his films except Before Midnight, as the dispersal of charisma draws out what really links these three men and their longing for fraternity – a love-hate relationship with the military-industrial compex. All of them are sceptical of the navy, but it’s the scepticism you reserve for when you’re let down by the things you value the most, a bind encapsulated in Doc’s decision to wrest his son’s body back from the aegis of Arlington and the rhetoric of military heroism in order to properly honour the conditions under which he fell in Iraq. Of the other two men, it’s Sal who is most scathing in his criticism of the military, and most adamant in his support for Doc, although you start to wonder whether his cynical bravado and theatrical irreverence for the navy is only because, in his own words, “the corps is the only culture that ever made sense to me.”
That tension between the trio’s dependence on and disillusion with the navy – disillusion as a form of dependence – grows more dissonant as the countercultural atmosphere around Vietnam is demanded more than ever by the present, but more inadequate than ever to the present as well. In many ways, the robust cynicism of this post-Vietnam fraternity so central to 80s and 90s Hollywood played as an assurance that soldiers would be able to take on Vietnam if it ever recurred – to see it coming, and be wiser the next time around. Yet by providing precisely this opportunity, the War in Iraq dismantles that fantasy, leaving the three veterans able to do nothing to continuously point out the analogies between Vietnam and Iraq with the very cynicism and streetsmart know-how that was meant to have precluded Iraq recapitulating Vietnam in the first place. At the very moment at which their cynicism is fulfilled, cynicism ceases to be an interesting or productive position, eroding and subsuming their disillusion into an odder and more emergent atmosphere that often verges on nostalgia for the post-Vietnam period, and the reassuring simplicities of cynicism itself.
In some sense, then, the three men are more distant for having come together again, just as their moments of distance grow more dramatic and emphatic amongst their moments of closeness. Still unresolved, frustrated and – above all – restless, the vital energy that they drew from Vietnam is seamlessly absorbed into a more bureaucratic and neoliberal American landscape, as much as Linklater might situate them in the remaining residues of Vietnam era infrastructure dotted across the barren panoramas that they traverse. At moments, that verges on a weird realisation that both soldiers and protesters drew on the same potential for collective action that suffused the 70s, even if they were on opposite sides – an unexpected alliance that films released in the immediate aftermath of Vietnam also had to contend with, reaching for ever more flamboyant and inchoate figurative devices to capture the way in which Vietnam had become the horizon of all representation, regardless of political affiliation. In Last Flag Flying, by contrast, the situation is considerably more muted and sober, as Linklater sketches out a world in which active soldiers and veterans are set adrift without even the slightest sense of collective purpose or possibility.
The fact that the film is itself a period drama set in 2003 makes this collective momentum feel more remote still, as Linklater effectively sets the restless, wandering, knockabout spirit of Baby Boomer America against an urban canvas that has been even more denuded and segregated in the fifteen years since the events of the film unfolded. As a result, the feel-good momentum of the road trip – the Baby Boomer trajectory par excellence – quickly dissolves, as the trio are forced to ditch their car and spend the last half of the film on Amtrak. It’s quite uncanny to see this Baby Boomer restlessness transplanted onto twenty-first century mass transit, since while there’s initially some congruence between the trio and these backdrops, their wandering gradually comes to feel even more unmoored and free-floating within these more elastic spaces. The more movement there is around them, the more static they appear to be, never able to jack into the momentum of the modern world but instead inevitably finding themselves in a bar, or a waiting room, or a train seat, or some other situation that stops their expansive roamings as soon as they begin. As the film would have it, the memory and experience of Vietnam is still unmatched as a countercultural presence in American culture, but has also been diluted and undercut in its potency over time, until the entire Baby Boomer experiement seems bound up in this melancholy trip.
As the film proceeds towards its conclusion, it becomes harder to tell whether this premise is being endorsed or critique – and whether this is an elegy or a critique of the Baby Boomer generation themselves. Yet that very distinction perhaps belies the complex tone of the Last Flag Flying, which suggests that both elegy and critique are inextricable from the Baby Boomers, whose tragedy and pathology here stems from precisely the endless self-critique and self-elegy that prevents the characters from ever really following through on their disillusion and disgust with any sustained conviction. While Doc might have spent a year in military prison in his youth, and might have violated soldier burial protocol, he nevertheless works for the navy, and ends up agreeing to bury Larry Jr. in his uniform. Similarly, while Sal might rant against the navy at every chance he gets, he nevertheless concedes it was his only real home, and ends up by learning the odd lesson that telling a lie to protect a soldier’s family isn’t the same thing as lying for the government, despite spending most of the film telling Doc the exact opposite. And while Mueller might have his fair share of social rage, he’s now a pastor whose platitudes become pretty monotonous as the film proceeds.
More generally, all three men hate Vietnam, are disillusioned with the American military-industrial complex, but still long for the camaraderie of war. That strange situation culminates with the revelation that Larry Jr. wanted to be buried in his military gear, but at home – a request so implausible that it basically functions as fantasy-fulfilment for the three men, and for the Baby Boomers in general, who time and again seemed to want social change while also wanting to remain sheltered and protected by the very social institutions they were critiquing. That might seem like a broad brushstroke, but the film is, in the end, quite uncompromising – if not necessarily in critiquing Baby Boomers, then in inhabiting a certain kind of Baby Boomer self-regard as comprehensively and honestly as possible. The result is like watching the finitude of liberal protest unfold before your eyes, or the finitude of liberal protest reimagined as a narrative and atmospheric structure, in what may be, in its own quiet and involuted way, one of the most morbid, unflinching films of Linklater’s career.