If you’ve never seen The Last Detail, Hal Ashby’s 1973 comedy-drama about three Navy sailors on a debauched and ultimately tragic road trip, there are several reasons to rectify that. There’s a devilishly charismatic performance from the young Jack Nicholson, a screenplay by Robert Towne (Chinatown) that balances savage political satire with a perceptive view of toxic male friendship, and Ashby’s unique directorial tone, familiar from classics such as Being There and Harold and Maude, which might be described as at once melancholic and sprightly. But there’s no need to add Richard Linklater’s movie Last Flag Flying—which has been touted in some advance press as a “sequel” to Ashby’s film—to your list of reasons for a Last Detail viewing. Watch them in order or not, together or separately. Though the new movie is in dialogue with its much older sibling, each stands alone as a work of art. Linklater has characterized the relationship between his film and Ashby’s as an “echo.” The names and some particulars may have changed, but there’s a continuity of spirit that connects these two movies, adapted from a pair of novels by Darryl Ponicsan that were themselves written 35 years apart. (Ponicsan also collaborated with Linklater on the screenplay.)
The numb-looking middle-aged man who shuffles into a grody Norfolk, Virginia, bar at the beginning of Last Flag Flying, Richard “Doc” Shepherd (Steve Carell), is the decades-older version of the naïve teenager played in Ashby’s film by Randy Quaid. Said grody bar is owned and operated by Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston), the former Jack Nicholson, a grizzled ex-Marine who continues to party as hard and disrespect authority as flagrantly as he did in his younger days. As the movie begins in 2003, Sal and Doc haven’t seen each other for 30 years. Since serving out a two-year term in the brig (for reasons best left to unfold in their own time if you haven’t seen the Ashby film), Doc has led a quiet life in New Hampshire, marrying, raising a son, and steering clear of the likes of the cynical, dissolute Sal.
After a night of beer-soaked bonding, Doc has Sal drive him to an all-black church where the pastor, the Rev. Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne) turns out to be the third member of their long-ago traveling party (the character played in The Last Detail by Otis Young). Only once the pastor—now a sober alcoholic trying to stay on the righteous path—reluctantly invites them home for lunch does Doc reveal the true purpose of his visit: His son, a Marine, has been killed in the Iraq war, and Doc is on his way to Arlington National Cemetery to bury him. Since he’s also been widowed in recent years, Doc is alone in the world, and he wants his long-ago military buddies, estranged as they might now be, to stand by his side at the funeral.
Like the young men’s journey in the 1973 film, the one Mueller, Doc, and Sal go on takes a few sharp swerves. Doc’s son’s death, presented to his dad by the Marine Corps in a conventionally heroic light, is revealed by a young comrade, Washington (Everybody Wants Some!!’s J. Quinton Johnson), to have been both less glamorous and less necessary. On discovering he’s been lied to by the same military that took his only child and two years of his youth, the soft-spoken Doc acts out a whole lifetime’s worth of suppressed rage. He refuses to bury his son in Arlington, demands custody of the body, and makes arrangements to rent a U-Haul to transport it up the Eastern seaboard to his New Hampshire home. Mueller and Sal come along—the former protesting all the while about the need to get back to his devoted wife and his parishioners, the latter treating the whole somber trip as an ever more inappropriate excuse to party.
Last Flag Flying could have been a certain kind of movie: a codgers-on-the-run comedy about how Grandpa got his groove back, say, or a solemn message drama about the futility of war. But in Linklater’s hands it becomes something else entirely, an idiosyncratic character portrait that defies genre pigeonholing. Sal, Doc, and Mueller get through their share of comic scrapes, one involving the Department of Homeland Security, another the then-strange new technology known as portable phones. They also re-experience the pain of the war that brought them together and the equally senseless one that took Doc’s son. All the while, in the manner of Linklater characters from Slacker on, they talk, shooting the breeze and busting each other’s balls in Amtrak cars, cheap hotel rooms, and the cabs of rental trucks. Last Flag Flying walks a fine line between compassion for its veteran protagonists and awareness of how badly their time in the military has damaged them. In the end, the film suggests, the friendships these men forged in wartime may be the closest relationships they ever have. But it’s hard to get from there to “heartwarming” given that it was the experience of going to war for questionable or dishonest reasons that left them so damaged in the first place.
The now 57-year-old Linklater, many of whose recent films (Before Midnight, Boyhood) illustrate the mystery of time’s passage, has made a true ensemble comedy with a pack of exceptional performances but no discernible star. Cranston, a TV virtuoso who’s struggled to find the right vehicle for his talent on the big screen, creates a complicated and poignant character in Sal: a lonely, alcoholic, self-centered nihilist who’s still somehow a decent dude, not to mention the life of every party. Fishburne’s hard-won moral gravitas as the conflicted pastor is surpassed only by his foulmouthed hilarity. But it’s Carell, as a lifelong beta male determined to have this one all-important matter go his way, who stretches as far as he ever has and seals his already solid reputation as a serious dramatic actor. Last Flag Flying arrives at a moment when Americans are seeking to confront our violent and checkered history while questioning the way that history has been presented for too long. This movie’s strength lies in its gentleness just as its wisdom lies in its willingness to get extravagantly silly. Richard Linklater is one of the best directors going, and Last Flag Flying shows his talents in the full flower of their maturity.