The “New Hollywood” era of the late 1960s and 1970s was a marvelous moment in filmmaking, the one by which most serious American films today is judged against, and it’s also a great entry point for budding film buffs to get into movies that are more challenging than the mainstream blockbusters we’re often fed today. That was certainly true for me and filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola did a lot to shape my interest in cinema and the deeper I went the more I was able to see the importance in some of the names that never really went on to be major institutions like Arthur Penn and Bob Rafelson. However, if there was one fairly major figure from that era whose films I was never quite able to get into it was probably Hal Ashby. I can see some of the boundaries he broke and I can see his influence but he sure made a lot of “classic” film which I don’t actually particularly enjoy watching. His cult classic Harold and Maude always just sort of struck me as a redo of what made Mike Nichols’ The Graduate work, Shampoo sort of bored me, and while some of his later 70s work like Coming Home and Being There are neat movies that both have their charms they still aren’t really movies that sing to my soul. The same sort of goes for his 1973 film The Last Detail, a movie I know I’ve seen but which I don’t particularly remember outside of the general plot setup and a few scenes. I had meant to give that film a re-watch in preparation for my viewing of its new unofficial sequel to that movie from director Richard Linklater, Last Flag Flying, but I didn’t manage to fit that into my schedule but now I wish I had because Linklater’s film has certainly renewed my interest in these characters.
Last Flag Flying is not a direct sequel to Ashby’s The Last Detail, but it is based on a novel by Darryl Ponicsan which was published in 2005 to be a follow-up to his previous novel which was the basis for Ashby’s film. The character names are different here, possibly for legal reasons (hence “unofficial sequel”) and they’re being played by different actors but it’s very clear that the people here are meant to be echoes of the characters from The Last Detail plus thirty years of aging. It begins with Larry “Doc” Shepard (Steve Carell) walking into a bar owned by Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston) and re-introducing himself. He tells Nealon that he spent two years in the brig after having been escorted by him and his fellow soldier, but that since then he’s settled into civilian life and actually has a military-adjacent job in New Hampshire. Deciding to catch up Shepard drives Nealon out over to a nearby Baptist church, where Nealon comes to realize that the reverend speaking is none other than Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburn), the other soldier who escorted him to the brig thirty years prior. After catching up with Mueller Shepard explains his reasons for re-uniting the three men: his wife had recently died of breast cancer and his son had apparently enlisted in the marines the prior year and was killed in action two days prior in Bagdad. The three then decide to go with him to Arlington cemetery to oversee the funeral and provide support.
Though the names and actors have changed it isn’t hard to tell what each character’s counterpart from The Last Detail is supposed to be. Steve Carrell’s Larry “Doc” Shepard despite having matured into a rather plain suburbanite is plainly based on Randy Quaid’s Laurence “Larry” Meadows, the young and possibly disturbed young man being escorted to the brig for stealing $40 from a collection plate. Bryan Cranston’s Sal Nealon is plainly meant to be Jack Nicholson’s Billy “Badass” Buddusky, and he remains an aimless hedonist who has spent the last thirty years running a dive bar and chasing women. And Laurence Fishburn’s Richard Mueller is meant to be a vision of what became of Otis Young’s Richard Mulhall, who unlike Nealon has left his hard drinking ways behind and found a new life as a respected reverend and family man.
These characters have changed in a number of ways since their time in Vietnam but also stayed the same in certain notable ways which is probably the main tension of the film. Linklater has said that he was inspired to make the film after he caught up with some of his old college baseball friends while researching his last movie Everybody Wants Some!! and making certain observations about what these reunions of old friends are like. At a certain point it becomes, in typical Linklater fashion, a bit of a hangout movie in which these men just talk to each other, catch up and think back on the Vietnam experience and its similarities and differences from the war in Iraq. Here Mueller and Nealon take on a perhaps more obvious role as the sort of angel and devil over Shepard’s shoulder with Mueller suggesting he follow the usual process of military decorum and mourning while Nealon encourages him to rebel against the marine corps who killed his son and conduct a funeral devoid of the pomp and circumstance of a state funeral. Added to the mix is the character of Charlie Washington (J. Quinton Johnson), one of the deceased son’s fellow soldiers who accompanies the men on part of their journey and adds the perspective of a younger generation of marines in some interesting discussions.
It is perhaps unfortunate that Amazon and Lionsgate have opted to release Last Flag Flying in late November when it is likely to get lost in the shuffle of flashier prestige films with hookier premises because it’s certainly another very solid entry in the Richard Linklater filmography. The connection to The Last Detail is ultimately something that shouldn’t distract the viewer too much as the movie stands alone and is ultimately a film more in line with Linklater’s usual style than that of Hal Ashby. Like Linklater’s other movies Last Flag Flying does a great job of placing its audience into the shoes of a certain kind of people and allowing them to observe their interactions like a fly on a wall. The characters here are a bit more blue-collar than some of his usual characters and there’s no obvious Linklater analogue here like there are in some of his other movies but that doesn’t seem to hold him back from presenting interesting and three dimensional characters and he proves to have unexpected insights (possibly Darryl Ponicsan’s contribution) into the meaning of military service. It doesn’t have the entertainment value of something like Dazed and Confused (though parts of it are funny), or the audacity of something like Boyhood, or the universality of the Before trilogy, but it does still work in much the way some of his other movies do and continues this little win streak he’s suddenly amassed.