It’s festival season! The FilmSoc blog is covering the BFI’s 61st London Film Festival (4-15 October), diving into the myriad of films and events on offer to deliver reviews.
Milo Garner examines Linklater’s latest.
Richard Linklater is famed for his varied filmography, but he is not merely a genre-hopper. His work can also be divided into two distinct parts. On one hand there would be the Before trilogy, Boyhood, and Waking Life, all of which might be described as art films. On the other, Bernie, School of Rock, and indeed, Last Flag Flying: his more commercial work. This division can be used to denigrate some of his output, with Linklater’s films often divided on the same line as ‘greater’ and ‘lesser’ – but even if mostly true, that isn’t to say the second set of films fail in their aims. Then again, you might be forgiven for thinking so in regards to Last Flag Flying. Its cinematography is grey and workmanlike – that is to say, uninteresting, despite the smooth editing that accompanies it. The synopsis sounds like a sort of typical flag-waver army-weeper, and the less said of the soundtrack the better. Despite these issues, however, the film impresses with its strongly written characters and matching performances.
Larry ‘Doc’ Sheffield (Steve Carell in another semi-serious role) tracks down an old friend, and finds him running a mostly deserted dive bar. This friend is Sal (Bryan Cranston), with whom Doc once served in Vietnam. After spending a while together, Doc has Sal drive him to the church of Reverend Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), another who served with Doc thirty years prior. Shortly afterward Doc reveals his purpose – his son, a marine, has been killed in action in Baghdad, and he wishes to see him off with those he fought with. It seems the stage is set for some wartime sob-stories, but what unfolds isn’t quite as expected. Instead of acting as a vehicle for military praise, the film takes an anti-establishment route, and raises issue with the military directly. Given the 2003 setting, many of its themes are admittedly dated – it is generally accepted that the Iraq War is a Bad Thing, that the government lies, and that the military isn’t an infallible beacon of Americanism. Nonetheless, these ideas are communicated fairly well, if bluntly, and do inform the narrative enough to be justified. One fairly novel aspect is the direct comparison of the Iraq War to Vietnam, which isn’t laboured too heavily yet functions to marry the memories of the main cast to the realities of their present excellently. Of course there is only so far repeating ‘why were our young boys over there anyway?’ can really take a narrative, but luckily that’s not the main event.
That would be the three men at the centre of it all, each well-realized and thoroughly entertaining. The group has innate chemistry. First there’s Doc, typically meek and downbeat, and clearly quite easily influenced. He is a good man given a bad lot, making those few moments he does crack a smile all the more satisfying. Carell has recently had a bout of serious or semi-serious roles, and he always delivers; it’s impossible not to sympathise with his weary performance here. Beside him is Fishburne’s Mueller, once infamous in the war, now very much reformed. We might call it overcompensating, being an ordained priest and all. While his performance initially belies a sense of stiltedness, this is later justified – really he’s an expert at repressing his authentic self, which breaks through every once in a while in foul-mouthed fury. Mueller, in contrast to Doc’s good man beset with bad, is a bad man beset with good. Then comes Sal, by far the most entertaining of the three. But don’t take that to mean he’s some kind of unrealistic comic relief – he is unmistakably real, his (presumably) bad breath almost palpable through the screen. He misses his days as a marine and has done little with his time since, maintaining the rowdy humour soldiers are known for. He is brash, has problems with authority, but sees a sense of justice in total honesty. Cranston utterly hits the mark in portrayal, managing a performance both innately charismatic yet simultaneously repulsive – Sal is the Bad Friend you can’t help but stick by. These three also make up a comment on the long-term effects of war and how people cope with it – Doc found family, Mueller found God, and Sal found the bottle. A fourth spot at the table remains unfilled: the member of their unit who didn’t make it back.
These characters work their best when interacting. Their chemistry is genuine and provides the film its comedic backbone. One scene, in which the three old men decide to buy flip phones (now cleared for nostalgia, it seems), is especially effective in its portrayal of aged naivety when it comes to new technology. Their group confoundment at the idea of 500 minutes a month of talk time is both ridiculous yet humanly warm. Another in which they discuss their old ‘war stories’ (that is, their time spent in ‘Disneyland’, the makeshift brothels around military camps) is similarly strong, again evoking a sense these are real people as opposed to inserted military stereotypes. That isn’t to say they don’t sometimes reminisce about the horror of bullets whizzing over dugouts, as would be expected, but their characters are rounded otherwise. Sal, for example, seems at odds with himself, both claiming that he’s thankful the war is over for him, yet also yearning for it. Not so much for the violence and horror, but for the times when he was at his peak – proud, young, and able, though not quite noble. This is Linklater’s ultimate success with Last Flag Flying. Though it’s technically unimpressive and its narrative and themes are not quite as interesting as they could be, he has created a set of authentic characters inhabited by actors talented enough to fully realize them.
Last Flag Flying had its UK premiere at London Film Festival on the 8th of October. Trailer below.