Teodosia Dobriyanova on Richard Linklater’s ‘Last Flag Flying’ (2017)
TIME IS AN EVER-PRESENT AND CENTRAL is an ever-present and central element in the cinema of Richard Linklater. The American auteur has dedicated his work to the observation of time and its relation to human life many times previously; the Before Trilogy, Boyhood, Everybody Wants Some, and more all evolve within a certain timespan, creating a meditative exploration of time. Films such as Before Sunrise and Everybody Wants Some explore events that take place within a limited amount of time (a night; a weekend), but Linklater’s overall work seems more interested in the changes time brings, the evolution of human life within one’s own timeline.
Such is the case with his latest, Last Flag Flying, in which an unlikely trio of friends that used to serve together in the Vietnam war reunite for the first time after thirty years. Back in Vietnam, Sal (Bryan Cranston), Richard Muller (Laurence Fishburne) and Larry, or ‘Doc’ (Steve Carell) were three young soldiers tired by the never-ending horrors of the war who, in order to keep their sanity, sought solace in alcohol, morphine, and visits to the brothels. Thirty years later, in the early 2000’s, Sal, an owner of a bar, has become an existential atheist with leanings towards alcoholism. Richard, now Reverend Richard, has turned to religion. Cal, the youngest amongst the three, becomes the reason for the reunion — having lost his wife to cancer less than a year ago, he finds out his son, a marine in the Iraq War, has just been killed. Left alone, Cal asks Sal and Richard to accompany him to his son’s burial.
As ever, Linklater delivers exquisite and natural dialogue that hardly feels pre-scripted. There are few directors that manage to transcribe the mundane into the screen and enfold its beauty in front of the spectator (in the way that Ozu or Tarkovsky used to do), but Linklater is one of them. There is a lot of the human condition within the mundane. In fact, human life is constructed by little everyday details that transcend their ordinariness and become an essence. And somewhere in there, following the most terrible events that can occur in someone’s life, there is friendship, and memories, and jokes, there is fascination with the new, with the smells of a city (as unpleasant as they can be), there is everything that’s worth being put into a poem. The very act of reunion between the three friends emphasises on the thirty-year gap in-between their meetings, and all the changes these three decades have brought to the characters’ lives. On the other hand, it also melts this time gap, bringing parallels between the war in Vietnam and the Invasion of Iraq, showing how some thing’s just don’t seem to change.
But Last Flag Flying is not just about that. Quite the opposite, it is Linklater’s darkest work so far. Not only that it explores the aftermath of a tragic and untimely death, but it also delves into topics of guilt, religion and ethics, and of the troubled notions of institutions and authority. Linklater does not hesitate to depict the dawn of our century as a dark and flawed time for the United States, pointing to the meaninglessness of war and the feeling of being betrayed by your own government. These heavy topics of war, bureaucracy and guilt are all counterbalanced by light-hearted comedy, with some of the funniest dialogues on screen this year. Cranston, Fishburne and Carell accommodate their characters effortlessly, delivering natural and powerful performances.
Far from forgettable, Last Flag Flying is a film about life in the midst of a crisis – both political and existential, a kind of film we need today, affirming Linklater’s central space among the most important filmmakers of our time. And hopefully, someday not too far from now, someone will manage to reflect on our times with the same profundity.