Thursday 1 February 2018

Closure: "Last Flag Flying"

Last Flag Flying, the unusually sombre new Richard Linklater drama, opens in a manner more immediately suggestive of a joke: a man walks into a bar, and nobody much notices. The man in question is a bespectacled middle-aged sadsack known as Doc (played, with a degree of cosmic inevitability, by Steve Carell), and he's come here in the hope of recruiting the bartender, Sal (Bryan Cranston), to help bury his son, whose body has just been flown back from the war in Iraq. Sal and Doc once served together in the Marine Corps in Vietnam, though they don't immediately remember each other; after refreshing their memory banks over an all-night bender, the pair seek out a third brother-in-arms, Richard "Dick" Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), who - to the salty Sal's not inconsiderable shock and amusement - has spent the years away from the battlefield retraining as a Baptist preacher. Perhaps it's not surprising the trio first fail to recognise one another: these are not the men they used to be. In several ways: Doc, Sal and Richard are characters first created by author Darryl Ponicsan for the book filmed by Hal Ashby in 1973 as The Last Detail, where the principal roles were played by Randy Quaid, Jack Nicholson and Otis Young.

What Doc actually walks into, then, is another of Linklater's experiments with time, a study of how the years eventually catch up with us, changing certain elements but others not at all. Linklater reportedly wrote his adaptation of Ponicsan's literary sequel a year after it was published in 2005, then left it (and perhaps himself) to mellow. This was not an entirely dumb move: at that moment, the writer-director was fresh off his commercially underperforming Bad News Bears redo, the box office awash with the corpses of leaden Bush-era anti-war statements, while the intervening decade has allowed Linklater access to a better quality of performer, and to prove himself a fine director of exactly those kinds of performers. The material that now reaches the screen certainly feels a good deal more lived-in for having been sat on all this while, but it often struggles to spark into full cinematic life. A more mournful, autumnal work than either the sunkissed Boyhood or the subsequent Everybody Wants Some!!, Last Flag Flying chugs along in second gear through the greyest of locations on the most overcast days available; its late January release feels sympathetic to the film's cause, but also positions it alongside Alexander Payne's Downsizing, leaving sturdier cinemagoers faced with yet another fundamentally middle-aged movie.

Part of the problem here surely stems from Ponicsan's source material, which at first appears to be no more than a repository for the complaints of military men (everything from insect bites through lamentable working conditions and obfuscating top brass to the very real possibility of sudden death) and then, more specifically, the gripes and regrets of menopausal white men (the crudeness of rap music, the dismantling of American industry, the staccato nature of modern basketball). This trio's ongoing discussion of what makes a patriot feels so particular to the Stars and Stripes that it loses some of its resonance and urgency upon crossing the Atlantic; we Brits currently have issues enough of our own to work through. And with all three characters chiefly defined by their chosen coping mechanisms (booze for Sal, Jesus for Richard, nothing as yet for the crumbling Doc), the whole begins to feel perilously close to a filmed thesis; the flashes of spontaneity Linklater brought to even his more theatrical endeavours - 1996's SubUrbia and 2001's Tape - are nowhere much to be seen. Even before the kid's coffin is loaded on a train bound for Arlington, we sense its bearers have been set firmly on their own narrative tracks, next stop: closure town.

What saves the film from its own doldrums is the fondness Linklater extends towards each of these men, and the affection - often joshing or mocking - which they show one another. Last Flag Flying expresses an idea of male camaraderie similar to that this filmmaker was getting at as far back as 1993's Dazed and Confused; he just approaches it from the opposite end of the age spectrum nowadays, that's all. Throughout the new film, you can feel him falling back on the tried-and-tested pleasures of watching non-starry actors palling around with and goofing off one another - and perhaps that's enough, finally, to keep us on board, much as good friends help to steer us through life's duller and rockier patches. A less wary performer, cast in the Sal role, might have been caught giving a pale imitation of Nicholson at his peak, but Cranston carefully and skilfully picks up where the bigger name left off: howling at the moon and miming conversation with his morning boner, yes, but also nudging the character in a newly rueful direction. If Fishburne has the disadvantage of having to play an entirely good and virtuous man, he sets about it with the stout avuncularity that has become the trademark of his recent performances; and Carell, despite receding behind his alpha co-stars into the backs and sides of frames, makes all Doc's bigger moments - even those appalling dad jokes he tells on coming out of his shell - land nevertheless.

It remains far from a perfect movie, or a complete gesture. The film's final twenty minutes serve mainly to illustrate the core differences between the more militant fringe filmmaking of Ashby's day, kicking wilfully and insistently against the pricks, and its complacent, often timid 21st century equivalent, which for all its good liberal-left intentions, has no comparable fire in its belly nor fight in its eyeline, and so often seems as though it's keen to uphold the status quo. (For one thing, Linklater's recourse to gently strummed guitars on his soundtracks is increasingly becoming as meaningless as Spielberg's deployment of parping John Williams fanfares.) Yet unlike Downsizing, which found an erstwhile indie hotshot striding boldly into the studio boardroom only to forget more or less completely what it was he was going in there for, Last Flag Flying does at least carry its characters and viewers somewhere. Linklater burdens his characters with an onerous task, then sees and thinks it through alongside them: his film is meant above else, I think, as a show of comradeship, one that determines to give those old and weary warriors both on screen and in the audience some comforting, well-earned yet long-withheld measure of peace.

Last Flag Flying is now playing in selected cinemas.

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