The Next Detail: Richard Linklater’s 'Last Flag Flying' follows three veterans on a very personal mission

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Somewhere, midway through the opening-night unfurling of Richard Linklater’s Last Flag Flying on Sept. 28 at the 55th New York Film Festival, the feeling may have started to sneak up on you that you’ve made this trip before—only with three much younger guys, all of them sailor-suited from an earlier wartime for a road trip with a mission.

“You were picking up the DNA,” Linklater translates with a grin. “It’s like hanging out with somebody and realizing, ‘You know, you do look a little like your father.’”

The camaraderie and interplay of these three also had a distinct echo as they went through the formal motions of another road trip with a mission: this, a burial detail.

That’s it! The Last Detail rides again! In Hal Ashby’s 1973 film, a boisterous, alpha-type vulgarian played to the nth degree by Jack Nicholson and his more subdued deputy nicely underplayed by Otis Young escort an 18-year-old sad-sack sailor (Randy Quaid) from Norfolk to Portsmouth to serve eight years in the brig for trying to steal $40 in polio contributions. Along the way, they take in some bawdy sights.

Nicholson and Quaid contended for Oscars, as did Robert Towne, whose adaptation of Darryl Ponicsan’s novel set the screen record at the time for the F-word and all its permutations (65 in all). The screenplay was completed in 1970 but allowed to cool off a couple of years, by which time the times had caught up with the Towne talk.

Last Flag Flying, opening on Nov. 3 from Amazon Studios and Lionsgate, is “a spiritual sequel” to The Last Detail, but it started out as a literal one with the exact same characters 30 years later. It was Thomas Lee Wright, the executive producer of the new film, who persuaded Ponicsan to write another novel picking up the later lives of those guys. The original book took place during the final years of the Vietnam War; Ponicsan began his sequel in 2003 as Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi empire was crumbling—and kept it there. Linklater entered the picture two years later and worked, off and on, with the author on the screenplay until now.

“It was a film that gestated ten years, much like my film Bernie. Often, you have a project you want to get made and at the time it just isn’t right. Maybe you don’t have the right actor. Maybe the industry is not in the right place. There were long times off doing other things, but I kept coming back to it. Eventually, it got made.

“The book actually is a sequel—it’s imagining those three guys 30 years later—but we couldn’t do that,” says Linklater, pausing to point to obvious obstacles like Young’s death in 2001 and that Nicholson, 80, and Quaid, 67, are cooling it on films.

So a new cast was drafted to perpetuate the initial character types. Bryan Cranston, Steve Carell and Laurence Fishburne wear different name tags in the film, but they otherwise credibly fill the shoes once occupied by Nicholson, Quaid and Young.

Cranston’s flair for blending and bending comedy into drama and vice versa gets a terrific workout here. “There are people who haven’t seen him in things where he does both at the same time,” says Linklater. “He’s really a brilliant comedic actor.”

The director also praises Carell’s underplaying, which makes a nice counterpoint to the large, out-there acting of Cranston and Fishburne. “Steve really dialed in on this one. His father served in World War II, one of those stoic Greatest Generation guys who never talked about the war, and he used that quiet quality in his performance.”

The script has projected convincing futures for the trio beyond their military careers and arranged the reunion without any wear-and-tear in the plausibility department.

Nicholson/Cranston’s hell-raising ex-Marine hedonist can hold court and pour his own drinks at a dingy dive of a bar he now operates. Quaid/Carell served his designated brig time and found a respectable civilian life, but sadness has clung to him—first from losing his wife to cancer and now from losing his son in Iraqi combat. Who better to officiate at Junior’s funeral than his old military buddies?

The only one of the three to take a sharp right from rowdiness is Young/Fishburne, and it has taken him into the old-time religion. (That move isn’t unprecedented: Young gave up acting to become an anti-Vietnam-War activist and ordained pastor.)

Linklater thinks the film is more road movie than war movie. “I wouldn’t really be interested in making a war movie,” he admits. “That’s a pretty powerful thing to depict. It’s not to be taken lightly, and I’ve mixed feelings about so many war movies.

“Wars are of the moment. People are driven for that moment in time, but you pay for it the rest of your life. The personal toll is life-long quite often. I feel it every time I see a soldier without limbs—to know every day he’s going to be living that for the rest of his life. I think this film captures my feeling of war—the ambiguity of it.

“Darryl’s book is really about the way two wars talk to each other and echo one another. They don’t usually make war movies about guys hanging out 30 years later, seeing how it affected them. They’re usually mission-based, with more immediate [goals]. This seemed much more of an area that I was interested in—the long-term effects, how these guys change, how they were affected, what it does to you.

“It’s a war movie in that it definitely reflects these two wars, for sure, but the post-9/11 atmosphere was a much more compelling area for me and nice to recreate—how intense it was all those years following, how paranoid everybody was. I don’t think a lot of people remember all of that. It was as if the whole world had shifted.”

The director believes Last Flag Flying also has a contemporary correlation. “It reflects this strange period we’re in right now”—a point underlined for him when, the day after the election, he had to shoot a sequence in an airplane hanger with several military coffins. “I recall thinking, ‘There’s nobody in those coffins, but it feels like there is.’”

Linklater, whose prize-winning Boyhood was made up of 12 years of here-and-there filming, still has a cinematic stove constantly percolating with projects in the works.

“I’m finishing another script, and I have a bunch of things sitting around that I hope to get made. I just wrapped a film two weeks ago, so I’m busy with postproduction of it right now. It’s called Where’d You Go, Bernadette? It’s a middle-aged woman’s crisis kind of thing,” with Cate Blanchett, Kristen Wiig, Billy Crudup and Laurence Fishburne, from a best-selling novel by Maria Semple, who co-adapted it with him.

He threw a wider filming net than Pittsburgh, where he shot Last Flag Flying. It went from Seattle to the North Pole. “Cate runs away to Antarctica, so we were there with icebergs and humpback whales. It was like a Werner Herzog film or something.”