The term maverick filmmaker gets tossed around a lot without much meaning, but Richard Linklater is truly a maverick filmmaker. Linklater is a director not bound by genre, able to weave in and out various genres with ease, nor is apprehensive to push the boundaries of the art form as he’s done with Waking Life or Boyhood. Sometimes Richard Linklater makes movies where you just want to hang out with the characters, and he’s done that with his latest film Last Flag Flying. The story of three Vietnam veterans reuniting for the funeral for one of their children is not only one of the best films of the year led by strong performances by Bryan Cranston, Steve Carell, and Laurence Fishburne, but Linklater’s adaptation of Darryl Ponicsan’s novel is funny, somber, and contemplative about service, duty, wars, and those scars that linger even when they’re not seen. After talking with Richard Linklater about Last Flag Flying, I’ve come to the conclusion that Linklater excels at making hangout movies because he’s someone you’d just want to hangout with – thoughtful, witty, and laidback in his demeanor.
Last Flag Flying was published as a sequel to Darryl Ponican’s novel The Last Detail, which was famously made into a film by Hal Ashby starring Jack Nicholson in 1973. Word has spread, as it did with Linklater’s last film Everybody Wants Some!!, that film would be dubbed a “spiritual sequel.” When I asked Linklater about the term, he just shook his head and sighed. “No. There’s no such thing. It’s such a goofy term. It’s kind of an accidental term,” the Oscar nominated director said of the labeling of his movies.
“This isn’t a sequel. This is no more a sequel than Silence of the Lambs is a sequel,” Linklater said referencing the fact that Hannibal Lecter had appeared on screen before Anthony Hopkins’ iconic performance in Michael Mann’s Manhunter. “Think about it. It’s the same thing. You got a different cast. It’s the next book, but it’s not – you can’t have a sequel if you don’t have the same cast.”
Once the film started screening and the connection was made to its source material, there was nothing that Linklater or his crew could do to tamp down the sequel chatter. “That got on us before – we didn’t get ahead of it. When people got wind of the movie, other people ran stories and things. We didn’t. No one from the production ever called it a sequel or a spiritual sequel,” he said.
Richard Linklater has been trying to bring Last Flag Flying to the screen for over a decade, having been unable to secure financing in 2005. When I asked the filmmaker if the divisive political climate at the time, defined by “You’re either with us or against us,” prevented the film from getting made the director was straightforward, “Yeah. So much so that people wouldn’t want to have seen it. The dialogue in the culture – it was such an open wound – I think that creates such an urgency that no one would’ve been able to see the movie. You know, you’re so tweaked out about the war.”
Time may not have healed all wounds, but Linklater believes that it’s allowed audiences to become more introspective about the Iraq War. “I think that’s what allowed it to get made now and not then. I think we’ve got more a distance. People are ready to analyze the Iraq War the way we’ve been analyzing Vietnam for such a long time. It takes a while. When it’s unfolding in front of you it’s not the time for historical analysis,” he said.
What makes Last Flag Flying so special is the tonal balance that Linklater strikes between the film’s ample humor and its more tragic elements that deal with loss. “It’s a tonal challenge within a minefield. I guess the politics of it are, you know – all movies are tonal challenges but this was comic-tragic. I’ve made black comedies before and that’s its own little tonal challenge and fun, but I think that’s my point of view of life – it’s tragic but really funny, too,” Linklater said. “Take the comedy where you can get it, and I think the comedy serves a really specific purpose for somebody like Sal who is technically hurting; he’s PTSD, self-medicating but I think for him life it’s fun to be the life of the party or have overt fun, and he’s going to make everything fun. Mueller calls him on it. ‘You’re going to make it fun, aren’t you?’ Remember, his son is dead. It’s there but I think those two can exist, comedy and tragedy right on top of each other. Humor is healing. If you think of the worst physical conditions you’ve been in, if you’re not just alone and with other people you make jokes about it. You have some shitty job where everybody’s miserable, you make jokes about it. You have fun with other people. That’s the way you rise above your crappy circumstances. People tell funny stories at funerals. It’s a healing, reasserting humanity.”
Adding an extra layer to Last Flag Flying is a moral quandary that presents itself repeatedly over the course of the film is a question as to when omission can lead to healing. “It’s about truth, isn’t it? What is truth? What’s a moral lie?” the director blatantly stating the questions raised in the film. “Truth is a blunt instrument. You see our culture go through it just over and over. We kind of cycle through, you know, just origins stories. When I grew up, Christopher Columbus was this great guy. There’s a new story to be told that unveils new elements of history. Okay, maybe not so good. It’s always up for play. It is truth? Or were they hiding the truth then? Some stories just become a myth that we all buy into. Organizations, governments, we need these kind of untruths to rally around. I think taking a country to war typically needs, at least since World War II, has needed a lot of untruth to wrap it into a simple story.”
“Look at the origin of both those wars and there are pretty profound lies that allowed both those wars to happen,” Linklater continued. “Without that you don’t have anything to rally around – weapons of mass destruction, mushroom clouds, and Gulf of Tonkin, and communist aggression. These are big exaggerations, more than specific lies. The leader is often – ‘It’s too nuanced for the moron masses to understand. I’m just gonna give ‘em a lie to move our agenda forward that they’ll all buy into. Do you want to get blown up? No? Then we’re gonna have to go to war.’ So here we are all are.”
Linklater does find it troubling when private citizens are held to a higher standard than those who make the calls for war. “I don’t like it when everybody else is being questioned. ‘Are you for the war or against the war? Oh, not for the war then you’re unpatriotic.’ They get away with that every time,” he said.
“If people will allow [patriotism] be reduced to something – a football player taking a knee, which is a reverential thing to do in the first place – is unpatriotic and doesn’t like their country. Wow. Where does that come from? There’s not one guy on the sidelines who doesn’t like his country and appreciate the opportunities they’ve gotten from this country, that doesn’t mean they’re not supposed to care about our countries ideals and question equal protection under the law, some very fundamental tenants of what we think our country stands for. A little less easy judgement about peoples patriotism or their love of the flag, love of the military, and a little more analysis of what might be bother the fellow citizen maybe you could learn something and learn their point of view,” he continued.
Even trickier than the tone of Last Flag Flying is the manner with which the film deals with the larger political aspects that loom over the events of the film, wading in a political subject without ever become a divisive or preachy polemic. “It’s a bit of a minefield. As a storyteller, I’m just trying to represent the points of view of my characters. They’re a little all over the map,” Linklater explained.
“Clearly, they have a big wide range of feelings,” he elaborated. “I can’t tell you who they would vote for. I know Mueller wouldn’t have voted for Trump in the last election, but Sal might have. Sal might’ve just for a nice little fuck you vote. Trump offered that to people. Who knows? I don’t particularly know them in that way. It’s a little all over the map. I didn’t want it to be too speechifying. I didn’t want it to be a polemic in that way. I wanted to show their lives from their points of view. You know, it doesn’t matter what I think of these wars.”
Capturing the tone and comradery of military men wasn’t as difficult for Linklater. He just followed the lead of the of the book’s author and co-writer of the screenplay Darryl Ponicsan. “A lot of that is in Daryl’s book. He’s a Navy guy. He did his hitches,” the director said. “Being around military guys, it’s a rapport. They’re very funny and edgy. I wanted to represent that, and how much they complain and bitch, like anybody trapped in any kind of hierarchy. The military is that. I just don’t buy these kind of false heroics – ‘Oh, I have a heroic subject, so I’m going to treat it so.’ They don’t. They make a lot of noise. They’ve earned the right.”