Balancing Act: Richard Linklater’s Last Flag Flying Deftly Dances Around America’s Political Minefields

Texas-based filmmaker Richard Linklater’s humanist touch and trademark ease affords him the ability to gracefully engage with more than a few of our country’s hot button issues in Last Flag Flying.

Maintaining an impressive workman-like pace (with various projects seemingly in all stages of production on his IMDB page), it is Linklater’s smaller more intimate projects like Last Flag Flying that allow an audience a window into how Linklater grapples with the nuanced reality of being an American (and a Texan). Picking up 30 years after Hal Ashby’s film The Last Detail ended, Steve Carrell stars as Doc, a grieving father who enlists his old Vietnam buddies Mueller (Laurence Fishburne) and Sal (Bryan Cranston—doing his best Jack Nicholson impersonation) to help him bury his son who was killed recently in Iraq. Sensitive yet full of quiet righteous anger, Linklater’s film manages a tightrope of tones and ideas that—like all of his best work—is never overt or preachy.

Caleb Hammond, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Was Daryl Ponicsan’s book and then Hal Ashby’s film The Last Detail just a jumping off point or were you incorporating aspects of those structurally with this new story?

Richard Linklater (RL): There’s some DNA there but since you’re not making a sequel, you’re not going to have the same actors. It was just really to adapt it away from that and to keep the spirit. The good thing about adapting away from it, is that we were able to add a lot of specific things that told our story better—the Vietnam background and things like that.

MM: How do you create something that takes the military and the pride of serving very seriously without being jingoistic?

RL: It’s a minefield. I always came back to respecting the soldiers—their perspective. The enlistee or the vets, their point of view. I was trying to stay out of it to whatever degree I could. I certainly have mixed feelings about wars and am sitting on some anger, but the book had that too. It seemed apt for that moment in history. I certainly didn’t want too much speechifying. It is a fine line though. It is a tough thing to pull off, but I always came back to not just honoring the military but honoring the person. At the end, the whole movie drifts towards some kind of resolution and where we end up is the perfect spot, where even Doc has gotten over his own pain—well he hasn’t gotten over his pain. He supersedes his own anger at the chain of command and whatever system is in place that lied to him, and is honoring what he feels is his son’s wishes. You honor the fallen, as do Mueller and Sal. Even though they clearly aren’t for this war, at a certain time it’s time to honor the person and not make it about you. It is a big sacrifice for that moment.

MM: Did you and your co-writer Daryl Ponicsan share those same ideas?

RL: Daryl is pretty hardcore. He’s a navy vet; the dude is almost 80 years old. He did his time. He was a good soldier—he was willing to die for his country. That’s a real thing; that’s bravery. But that kind of one-way relationship where I’m laying my life down for my country is the definition of bravery. It’s how that command above you uses that. The big decisions are made at the top, and all the shit flows downhill. What we have here is more of the grunt perspective from both wars. These guys were not high ranking anybody’s. These guys were in the trenches, as well as Larry Jr. That’s the point of view of the movie: it’s really about that chain of command. That’s to be criticized—not the troops—the command. There’s no bigger political decision than going to war. That’s the most political thing you can do. It’s all of our tax dollars; it’s all of our fellow citizens. That’s the part that needs scrutiny. That should always be the focus and the place that needs our analysis, not these shallow things like, “Do you support the troops? Do you love your flag?” It’s really like, “Is this war worth it?”

Our co-writing relationship was frictionless. We were just reading the book a couple of times, and really outlining it. I think Daryl really trusted my storytelling impulses. A lot of it is condensing. I’m pretty good at structure and architecture and knowing what can go. We just went back and forth, rewriting each other’s stuff—collaborating. At this stage now, we don’t remember who had what idea. We each think the other did.

Bryan Cranston, Steve Carrell, and Laurence Fishburne in Last Flag Flying. Image courtesy of Lionsgate and Amazon Studios

MM: As someone who is considered more of an actor’s director and writer, what conversations were you having with your cinematographer about the visuals? 

RL: That starts way in advance with the team and your production designer. You come up with rules. For me it was all about texture. We just have to feel this movie: damp, off-and-on rain, no sunlight, the location are all grungy—just a kind of tone. The visual palette was monochromatic and bleak winter up there.

MM: That mirrors The Last Detail which makes you feel very cold.

RL: Yeah, if I remember that movie it is actually freezing, and there’s a lot of snow. But actually there is a lot of sunlight in that movie too, but that doesn’t mean they’re not freezing their asses off.

MM: How do you write Mueller’s character so you take his faith seriously, but also poke fun at him and religion?

That’s a fine line too. There are a couple minefields here between your view of the military or religion. That dialogue between Sal and Mueller goes on through the whole movie. Sal is poking about his faith and Mueller pokes back about his lack of faith. I respect people’s faith and beliefs. I don’t know what’s gained out of making fun of that. You can have fun within that, but I always take the point of view of the character. Mueller is extremely serious and sincere about his faith, so I want the movie to mirror that. To do anything less would not treat him like a major character. It’s the same with the view toward military matters. I want to respect my characters’ viewpoints more than anything I want to impose on it. On one level you can say, “Well, Sal is self-medicating through substance: alcohol and whatever. Mueller is self-medicating through the Lord, his belief.” It’s clearly working for Mueller. He’s got a nice family life; he has meaning in his life. You can believe what you want, but it’s working for him.

MM: The most comfortable Christians you meet will be the first ones to make fun of it.

RL: Yeah, just like military people. The ones who make fun and complain the most about the military are the military. They’ve earned the right.

MM: MovieMaker Magazine is always interested in filmmakers who thrive in places outside of the traditional Los Angeles or New York. How does Texas work for you; how have you built this film community that’s allowed you to work and live there?

RL: That story has been around for my 25 years as far as I can. I came aboard right at the time when there were films coming from all over the country—It was pretty exciting. I was just one more example of that. The more indie things have gotten, the more technology has helped filmmakers and made it less expensive. I’m a big advocate that the film world is wherever you find it or create it. You can do that anywhere. Everything is so available.

Wherever it works for your storytelling soul. Wherever your personality takes you, you can make it happen. I mean it was rough getting started in Austin and sometimes I felt like, “Oh, maybe it’s not happening for me here.” To be young is to be impatient. You want your passion to be met with approval sooner than the world will deem it possible. So I was starting to think, “Maybe I’m in the wrong place.” But I’m glad I stuck it out a little bit longer. That’s when you think it’s time for a move. Like any relationship: stick it out a little bit longer, make it happen.

MM: One more tonal question: Obviously it’s a very emotional movie at times dealing with loss and grief. Did you consciously pace out the comedic moments or was this process more instinctual?

RL: I think this movie kind of rests on a bedrock of once you realize what it is, there’s a tragic kind of underpinning to the whole thing. The humor, like in life, is wherever you find it. So it’s kind of constant, and I don’t mind mashing them right up against each other. Because that’s how life is. People laugh and have funny stories at funerals. People find humor everywhere—as long as it’s character based. It just seemed appropriate for this [film]. I see the world in comedic, tragic terms, so it makes total sense to me that those are right on top of each other. I’ve done that before. I think my movie Bernie felt like a real challenge. It was a black comedy, but it dealt with mortality and tragedy, and yet it’s overtly a comedy. So that’s always a fun line. This isn’t a black comedy, but it’s a drama that is not afraid of being really funny too. I think they go well together. MM

Last Flag Flying opens in theaters on November 3, 2017, courtesy of Lionsgate and Amazon Studios. All images courtesy of Lionsgate and Amazon Studios.

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