NYFF 2017: Richard Linklater’s Last Flag Flying

On Film / The Daily — Sep 28, 2017

“If you’ve never seen The Last Detail, Hal Ashby’s 1973 comedy-drama about three Navy sailors on a debauched and ultimately tragic road trip, there are several reasons to rectify that,” begins Dana Stevens at Slate. “There’s a devilishly charismatic performance from the young Jack Nicholson, a screenplay by Robert Towne (Chinatown) that balances savage political satire with a perceptive view of toxic male friendship, and Ashby’s unique directorial tone, familiar from classics such as Being There and Harold and Maude, which might be described as at once melancholic and sprightly.” Richard Linklater “has characterized the relationship between his film,” Last Flag Flying, which has just premiered at the New York Film Festival, “and Ashby’s as an ‘echo.’ The names and some particulars may have changed, but there’s a continuity of spirit that connects these two movies, adapted from a pair of novels by Darryl Ponicsan that were themselves written thirty-five years apart.”

Keith Uhlich notes that Ponicsan “shares co-screenwriting credit” with Linklater on the new film, “though the character names have been changed as one way of giving the tale its own identity. It’s still difficult to think of the central trio, Nealon (Bryan Cranston), Shepherd (Steve Carell), and Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), as anyone other than Buddusky (Jack Nicholson), Meadows (Randy Quaid) and Mulhall (Otis Young), in large part because Cranston, as the group’s resident hellraiser, seems to be doing an outsize Nicholson impression as opposed to staking out his own territory. And though they fare better in comparison, Fishburne and Carell are similarly surface. These are ‘performances’ first and foremost, and this wreaks havoc with the emotional and sociopolitical undercurrents.”

Justin Stewart, writing for Reverse Shot, disagrees, finding that Last Flag Flying presents “angry, sad, but, in hindsight, wise perspective on the early Iraq War years.” This is a road trip set in 2003, and Doc “initiates it” by revealing “the cause of his soft-spoken sadness—his wife’s recently dead of cancer, and his son, Larry Jr., a Marine, was just killed in Iraq. Sal and a reluctant Mueller agree to accompany Doc to a burial at Arlington, which then becomes an As I Lay Dying–like errand involving a trip to Dover Air Force Base to retrieve the body, and then a road trip to see Larry Jr. buried at home with family after all three grow increasingly disillusioned with the U.S. government’s dishonesty.”

Writing for Screen Slate, Chloe Lizotte grants that this is “a familiar story of the decay of a certain idealized vision of America, told amidst a backdrop of rusty infrastructure, faded photographs, and one deliberately placed Hail to the Thief poster near the end. But where other filmmakers might have reduced Last Flag Flying to didactic, Bush-era talking points, Linklater and co-screenwriter Ponicsan convey these ideas through nuanced characters, fostering an organic camaraderie that belies the depth of their shared history.”

“Linklater is (still) at the top of his technical game,” writes Vadim Rizov at Filmmaker, noting that “there’s a long sequence that plays out in an airport hanger, in which space is divided so well while characters separate and re-converge that I forgot the sequence was locked into one big location over the course of approximately ten minutes. Linklater’s thoroughly worked through his influences to make them serve him without being distractingly quote-y: you’d never guess how many hours he’d spent studying Akerman and Benning, though the Bresson overhead object shots are recognizable.” That said, “I’ll concede: A normal Linklater hang-out movie is mapped on top of a sober Iraq drama, and the mixture doesn’t mesh.”

Last Flag Flying “is colored by how time reshapes our sense of self, embracing some memories while occluding others,” writes Christopher Gray for Slant, “and it ingeniously folds us into a similar state of reflection and uncertainty about previous eras of false optimism about national values. . . . Like Before Midnight, Last Flag Flying is both gimlet-eyed and philosophical enough to question the lasting worth of youthful romanticism.”

The screenplay “toys with the intriguing concept of men who believe in the institution but take issue with the government in control of it,” writes the Guardian’s Benjamin Lee, “but any profundity is lost in half-speak, surrounded by hackneyed, stagey dialogue and unfunny comedy.”

Variety’s Owen Gleiberman agrees that “the themes, of regret and repentance and American lies, are spoon-fed to the audience in a way that’s surprisingly tidy and didactic. . . . Linklater can be a master of drifting naturalism (e.g., Dazed and Confused), but Last Flag Flying, surprisingly, has none of that free-flowing, organic quality.”

For the Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney, “despite poignant moments, particularly in the performances of Steve Carell and Laurence Fishburne, the weave of somber introspection, rueful reminiscence, irreverent comedy and sociopolitical commentary feels effortful, placing the movie among the less memorable entries in Linklater's canon.”

More from Eric Kohn (IndieWire, B+), Kyle Pletcher (Film Stage, C+), and Rodrigo Perez (Playlist, B).

“I think in particular when it comes to the Iraq War, history had changed quite a bit,” Linklater tells Steven Zeitchik in the Los Angeles Times. “Look at the [2016] Republican debates. Almost everyone said the war was a mistake—the one guy who didn’t was the one whose brother started it. The culture shifted, like it did on Vietnam. A conservative-ish friend of mine saw this film and he said it felt like ‘liberal patriotism.’ I wasn’t sure exactly what he meant, but I kind of got it. You can question the war but still have all these warm feelings about your country. The guys in the movie talk about it in this one scene—‘I love this country, it’s a great country, but you gotta have a reason to love it.’ And that reason is ‘don’t get lied to.’”

Updates, 9/30: “While the film has no shortage of Linklater’s usual filmmaking smarts, the characters are clichés, the story plodding and predictable, and the military/male-bonding element full of the wrong kind of easy sentimentality,” finds Godfrey Cheshire at RogerEbert.com.

Graham Fuller for Screen: “Last Flag Flying is a film that revels in its ambiguities, which extend to its genre-hopping: it’s at once a war movie set on the home front, a road movie, and a comedy-drama. Shane F. Kelly’s low-lit cinematography, the drab Pittsburgh and Pennsylvanian locations, downpours, leaden skies, and night sequences instill a downbeat tone offset by a larger-than-life turn by Cranston.”

Nick Schager at the Daily Beast: “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.”

Updates, 10/2: For Dylan Kai Dempsey at Ioncinema, “even without Linklater’s signature risk-taking, Last Flag Flying is a fitting addition to his body of work. It’s a tender, well-told story, ripe with finger-on-the-pulse humor. Like his Dazed and Confused, it gives us an uproarious slice-of-life; like his Before trilogy, it explores the inexorable flow of time and shared understanding.”

Update, 10/3: “The conversations in Linklater’s films are supposed to bring out character complexities, to bring about dynamic changes, but all the principles here rarely come off as more than one-note constructs, consigned to enforce their roles,” writes Jason Ooi at In Review Online.

Updates, 10/5: “Linklater wanted to make this movie for about ten years before he got the chance,” notes Jesse Hassenger in Brooklyn Magazine, “and at the NYFF press conference, he spoke of getting some distance from the material’s early-’00s period as a benefit of this longer gestation. Thing is, Last Flag feels very much like a movie of that era—one of those respectful, respectable Iraq War issue pictures that started coming out a few years after the conflict’s semi-permanent status sank in. It also feels removed from Linklater’s recent hot streak; the naturalism of Boyhood gets Serious Acted out of the frame here. This road picture’s many detours, the stuff that should be right in Linklater’s wheelhouse, mostly feel, well, like vexing delays.”

Last Flag Flying tackles the legacies of Iraq and Vietnam in a way that erodes any red state/blue state divide,” writes Soheil Rezayazdi for Filmmaker. “Much of the film seems envisioned as a response to the ban on photographs of military coffins during the Iraq War. Many have long argued that this policy shielded the human cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Linklater’s film relishes in the images we weren’t allowed to see in 2003: flag-draped coffins, dead bodies in transit, grieving parents. A war movie with no combat, the film is all human cost.”

Update, 10/27: The original “wintry tale remains hot with comic aggression, and Nicholson, noisily potent, reminds you of Cagney,” writes Anthony Lane in the New Yorker. “Cranston, in Last Flag Flying, seeks out the same terrain, but his crudeness is more of a crotchety act, and the journey concludes on a glum conservative note. Some stories need not be told again.”

Update, 10/30: “Linklater has been extremely gratified and a bit relieved that the members of the military who have seen the film in early screenings ‘tend to like it’ because it ‘captures that love-hate thing that they all have’ about their various experiences,” writes Matt Wilstein at the Daily Beast. “‘They find it very cathartic, I hear the word “healing” a lot,’ he says. ‘That wasn’t foremost on my mind making it, but it was like, in a way maybe it was some kind of sublimated impulse.’”

Updates, 11/3: “The film, like the characters, feels like it’s working things out as it goes along,” writes A. O. Scott in the New York Times. “This is sometimes fascinating and sometimes frustrating. The performances don’t always connect. Mr. Cranston, leaning into a New York accent, his hands and face perpetually in motion, has the busy energy of a stage actor. Mr. Fishburne is a master of stillness, and the dissonance between them isn’t just a matter of the differences between Sal and Mueller. I never made the imaginative leap from performance to reality. The actors somehow got in the way of the characters. But even if Last Flag Flying isn’t quite persuasive, it is nonetheless enormously thought-provoking, and its roughness is a sign of how earnestly it grapples with matters that other movies about war prefer not to think about.”

The Village Voice’s Bilge Ebiri finds that “it’s somber and respectful, and even has a couple of genuinely powerful moments, but none of that’s enough to transcend its oppressive dreariness. . . . Maybe it’s all intentional. The picture’s final moments suggest that it’s meant as a tribute to simple people—to good, plain folks who do as they’re told, whose interactions are dictated by what is deemed appropriate by the powers that be, and who don’t steer far from the accepted path of being. That’s the kind of philosophical question that has animated plenty of Linklater efforts in the past. But Last Flag Flying merely hints at the idea without engaging with it, bracketing a couple of stirring scenes with a lot of wan filler. Last Flag Flying is not a bad movie per se. It’s just not much of a movie at all.”

“Linklater, for all his gifts in directing ruminative, digressive gab, isn’t exactly the king of dramatic structure,” writes Ignatiy Vishnevetsky at the A.V. Club. “There are clumsy, didactic, and sentimental moments scattered through the film; at 124 minutes, it’s too long and episodic for its own good. But his sensibility—sympathetic, politically skeptical—strikes through at simple, important truths.”

Michael Koresky in Film Comment: “As Last Flag Flying eases into being a road-trip film (a distinctly American genre I didn’t realize I missed so much until I was riding sidecar), Linklater, always better at time-constrained narratives, hits his stride, the guys’ camaraderie making Cranston’s shenanigans almost palatable. The film follows a familiar template, but the wounds it traces are undeniable.”

“Though it won't rank among his best, this antic, heartfelt dramedy about the many wounds of war handily shows off the director's abiding delight in illuminating character through banter,” writes Ella Taylor for NPR, adding that “it simultaneously beams a light into critical American moments past and present.”

Those who admire Linklater “value his gift for using dialogue to capture the mood and rhythm of a specific place, time or situation,” writes Time’s Stephanie Zacharek. “What he does is less like screenwriting and more like eavesdropping on his characters. But Last Flag Flying—even though it ultimately lands on a graceful, moving note—has little of that seemingly paradoxical freewheeling specificity. Instead, it’s been carefully crafted to make its all-too-obvious points.”

“The writing is the star here.” K. Austin Collins at the Ringer: “As a piece of filmmaking Last Flag Flying is not the kind of Linklater movie that makes a case for the sublime intelligence of his deceptively plain, naturalistic style. More than usual with Linklater, what you see, in this case, is basically all you get. And what you get is above all a bevy of thorough, intelligent performances.”

For David Sims at the Atlantic, “the film feels half-formed, sometimes trying to be raucously confrontational, other times excessively sedate. Like some of the weakest efforts in Linklater’s career (Fast Food Nation, SubUrbia), this movie sees the director trying to tackle a grand issue from too many angles, and emerging with no major new insights.”

Chloe Lizotte talks with Ponicsan for Film Comment.

Update, 11/4: “Would it be fair to say Last Flag Flying is your first film that’s informed by a middle-aged man’s sensibilities?” Joe Leydon asks Linklater for Variety. Linklater: “Absolutely. Yeah, I was very aware of that. And it was so much fun to be, like, with contemporaries.” Further in: “We had a thirty—three-day shoot, but we wrapped on day thirty. Everybody was so ready, it was just frictionless. It was just so smooth. I’m gonna say this is kind of my Sidney Lumet phase. You know, every day, I’d be like, ‘I think we’re done. It’s not like I have tickets to the ballgame, I’m not going anywhere, but we’re done.’ I wasn’t being lazy—we were all pushing ourselves. But I’d be thinking, ‘OK, we nailed it. I’ve shot this, I’m gonna use this, let’s move on.’”

Updates, 11/6:Last Flag Flying may not stand as one of Linklater’s defining works,” writes Max O'Connell at the Film Stage, “but it does signal a kinship with [Hal Ashby], whose run from 1970-1979 was as inspired as any other from that era—before he got burned (and burned-out) and died too young at the age of 59. Ashby and Linklater have a shared ability to make a film built on discursive moments flow narratively, an affinity for counterculture movements or small communities that help define an era or place while being held outside of its mainstream, and a shared interest in people discovering themselves and finding some small measure of independence in circumstances that otherwise forbid it.”

A. A. Dowd and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky discuss the film at the A.V. Club (4’06”).

Updates, 11/11: For the Austin Chronicle’s Marjorie Baumgarten, “no matter the age bracket, the means toward Linklater’s end never changes. Conversations and perambulations in Linklater’s world remain the uncharted stepping stones to understanding and human growth.” Also in the Chronicle is Richard Whittaker’s conversation with Linklater.

“Ashby and Linklater aren’t visual siblings necessarily, but they share a certain sensitivity towards actors, allowing them to suss out great performances from them, and the ability to elevate small moments to a higher, emotionally potent plane,” writes Vikram Murthi at RogerEbert.com. “Second, the films share a thematic affinity that’s difficult to ignore: the ideological ambivalence that comes from serving a country that lacks a moral compass. In both films, the three men are caught between values like honor, duty, and justice—ideas drilled into them by military service—and their own cynicism, bordering on utter disdain, for the larger system. The wars might change but the struggle remains the same.”

Ringer editor-in-chief Sean Fennessey talks with Linklater about the film as well as “the state of sexual harassment news in Hollywood” (37’07”).

NYFF 2017 Index. For news and items of interest throughout the day, every day, follow @CriterionDaily.