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Richard Linklater finally has his road trip movie.
Set in December 2003, Last Flag Flying opens with Steve Carell’s soft-spoken Larry “Doc” Shepherd tracking down his old friend Sal Nealon, played with foul-mouthed vigor by Bryan Cranston. The two were in Vietnam together, and Larry enlists him to help transport the body of his son, who was killed in Iraq. They pick up fellow vet Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), who is now a man of God. And with that collection of personalities, the film sets off on an emotional journey that paints early aughts patriotism in dreary strokes.
While his past films often focus on youth and romance, Last Flag Flying is more somber: 9/11 is still fresh; America’s less than a year into the Iraq War; we see footage of Saddam Hussein being captured, and George W. Bush on TV. But the film is also a portrait of damaged men in middle age, which doesn’t always make for the most entertaining content.
Linklater tells the Daily Dot he started production on 2014 film Boyhood in 2002, and Last Flag Flying came up in 2005, but by the time they actually started shooting Linklater was the age of the men in the film. The director didn’t interview veterans for Last Flag Flying, which is based on Darryl Ponicsan’s 2005 novel of the same name; he says the story was more about the three main characters, and “how these two wars were speaking to each other.” The chemistry between the three mostly works. Larry has the devil (Sal) and angel (Mueller) on his shoulders, and in one pivotal scene, Sal urges Larry to look at his son’s body in a flag-draped coffin. Carell’s character appears perpetually shell-shocked but he’s almost too catatonic here, especially when paired by Cranston.
It’s not all dour. There’s one scene on a train where Cranston tells a story about how he used to be more virile that feels improvised, but Linklater assures was scripted. While Last Flag Flying is a portrait of friendship under heartbreaking circumstances, it’s also a reminder of the cycle of war and the patriotic sentiment of post-9/11 America, which has rippled into something more dangerous in 2017. He cites America’s “warrior class,” and its generations of men bred for the military.
“It was difficult and horrifying to watch a culture just want to go to war,” Linklater says. “It’s kind of like we’ve got this football team that hasn’t played a game in a while. Let’s have a game.”
During filming, Cranston and Carell went door to door in Pittsburgh to stump for Hillary Clinton. They were filming when the election happened as well. “It cast a pall,” Linklater says. “The day after the election, I showed up on the location of the flag-draped coffins. The stark, white room with the huge American flag… talk about country.”
Last Flag Flying is Linklater’s first movie with Amazon Studios, which has seen its share of problems in the last few months. Asked about the recent flood of allegations against Harvey Weinstein and James Toback, Linklater says there needs to be a better platform for reporting predatory behavior.
“Our culture just needs to weed out these people,” he says. “Unfortunately we have one in the White House so we have to quit responding to this brazen, abusive person and think that’s a good leader, or that’s a good CEO. Or to empower these people. We need that to be a less attractive trait in corporate America.”
Asked whether he’d ever do a Netflix or Hulu project, he said as a director in 2017 you’re always looking for the next thing, but he probably won’t do TV. “I’m kind of a feature film guy,” he says. “That said, I do have a story or two that are just too vast. A 10-hour movie. Some things that have just gotten so out of control that I do think they’re more fit for the way we consume TV.”
Last Flag Flying might be a little jarring for Linklater fans who are used to the warmth and enthusiasm of his past films. He keeps the ever-present philosophical thread, but at times the film sags under lack of structure and narrative; it feels more like a play. Often you’re just left with the devastated faces of people and their questions to the universe, but that’s Linklater’s trademark.
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Audra Schroeder is the Daily Dot’s senior entertainment writer, and she focuses on streaming, comedy, and music. Her work has previously appeared in the Austin Chronicle, the Dallas Observer, NPR, ESPN, Bitch, and the Village Voice. She is based in Austin, Texas.