Seminally, Richard Linklater’s Last Flag Flying remains a phenomenal road picture. When three Vietnam vets encounter each other after decades, the unique meet-up changes their lives. This sterling, humorous, and poignant film jockeys between raucous, lively fun and the gravitas of loss. Additionally, the acting by Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston, Laurence Fishburne, and J. Quinton Johnson sings perfection.
Darryl Ponicsan who wrote the debut novel also co-wrote the excellent screenplay with Linklater. Assuredly, this story strikes a rich vein of gold, mounting profound anti-war themes. In its World Premiere at the New York Film Festival, Linklater, Ponicsan, and three of the cast stopped by for a Q and A after the screening.
On the surface the film’s simplicity shines. Mild-mannered, quiet Doc Shephard (Carell) seeks out Vietnam buddies Sal (Cranston) and Mueller (Fishburne). It would seem that their lives and characters remain eerily the same with the exception of Mueller. In particular Mueller who had been a wild and outrageous act-out alcoholic transformed into a preacher. Consequently, Sal, the loud-mouthed, humorous and deep-down solid, caring guy, ribs Reverend Mueller. Finally, he provokes him until remnants of the old Mueller surface. Happily, Sal points out that the “real” Mueller has not been washed out by Christ’s blood.
Gradually, the plot points and events enlighten and draw us in. Doc has buried his wife who died from cancer. To add insult to injury behind the knock at the door comes the sad news of his son’s death. However, at least his son, a marine, died a hero saving lives.
Doc poignantly asks Sal and Reverend Mueller to go with him to Arlington to bury his son. Initially, Mueller refuses to go. Though Sal cajoles and twits him, he still declines. Finally, the Muellers invite Doc and Sal to a sumptuous dinner. Of course Doc and Sal discuss Doc’s wishes at the dinner table. As an ironic and humorous twist, in a hysterical scene Mrs. Mueller’s power overrides the Reverend’s choice.
Thus, the three set off on this last mission together confronting regrets, the horrors of war and death. And on their journey they discover love, truth, and the strength to carry on. Despite the experiences they went through, they learn they have each other’s eternal support. Though the memories, unlike their buddies lost in the war will never die until they die, love remains.
Between The Vietnam war and the Iraq war, the film melds principles and issues. Indeed, one theme suggests the wealthy create senseless wars to enrich themselves. Another theme suggests the amount of blood spilled becomes immaterial to the bean counters. Of course, the wealthy or privileged must not add their kin to the body counts. Apparently, the wisdom learned from Vietnam has not produced a change in the politics of rich men’s wars.
This point hits especially hard with Doc who becomes inflamed when he discovers the Marines lied to him about his son. Indeed, the self-serving lies justify that the war makes sense. On the other hand Doc, Mueller and Sal once more realize that no war makes sense. And Doc refuses the military’s help with his son to take a stand against the lie told to him.
Indeed, unless the privileged
who profit from war fight it instead of the little people, such bloodshed signifies a void. Sadly, they must live with regrets which no one should have to live with, and they must somehow dig deep to carry on and not commit suicide.
Additionally, sub rosa issues thread through the film. As a matter of fact for both wars, politicians pushed for the conflicts.
Because they signed off on defense contracts receiving the quid pro quo of re-election, they initiated reasons like WMD to create war’s necessity. Ironically, the same manufacturing of rationale happened with the Vietnam War. Importantly, the men discuss that the beaches once filled with fire and blood during the war now provide happiness to tourists. They wonder at the point of all of the pain, torment, misery, PTSD, and death.
The same questions abide with the current wars. Indeed, the only thing that changed between then and now remains a lack of protest. Congress “wisely” passed legislation banning media shots of flag-draped coffins and mutilated bodies of soldiers and Iraqi women and children. Also, the appalling counts of PTSD suicides, maimed and mutilated vets have become shrouded mist, not covered by media outlets.
Brilliant characterizations by the actors heighten the dynamic of these three Vietnam era vets who join forces for justice, and what they discover which answers all things is their love for each other. Indeed, justice, like war never heals the wounded. But like death and taxes, Linklater and Ponicsan underscore that wars will continue because folks get rich because of them. Above all, support and love from friends, family and humane individuals trumps politics, war’s injustices, and everything in between.
Look for this must see film in select theaters 3 November.