Richard Linklater’s films are defined by conversation, by what’s said and what’s not. The filmmaker is often interested in how discussion can encourage movement, each thought leading to a new idea or revelation. It’s that sort of conversation that’s at the heart of Last Flag Flying, the director’s latest project, adapted from Darryl Ponicsan’s 2005 novel of the same name. His 2005 novel is a sequal to 1970’s The Last Detail, which was made into a movie starring Jack Nicholson in 1973. Made more than 40 years later, Linklater’s thoughtful rendition is not so much a sequel as it is a companion piece, reimagining the characters in a way specific to this work.
The film follows three men (played by Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston and Laurence Fishburne) who served together in Vietnam. They’re reunited in 2003, in the midst of the Iraq War, when the son of Carell’s character is killed in action and needs to be buried. It looks deeply at war and the military without ever showing any battles or violence; dialogue carries the plot. It takes a nuanced approach to conflict, though there is a sense by the end that neither Ponicsan nor the director are fans of war. We spoke with Linklater following the film’s international premiere at the London Film Festival about making a war movie, dealing with the military onscreen, and how Last Flag Flying resonates with what’s happening in America today.
How did this story come to you?
It was more or less an unpublished novel when I read it in ’05. I just really loved these characters. The book had the things the film has—not just the structure, but the anger and all that. It was an adaptive process to try to tell this story. I never had a war movie in mind so much, but this is my kind of war movie. Spending time with these guys and really getting to know them. It seemed like the right angle for me to express all that.
It’s interesting because it’s a war movie that never actually depicts war.
Yeah. But, boy, it’s there. Wars really leave a huge after-effect. Wars last only a certain amount of time for the person who experiences it, but it’s kind of there for a lifetime. And obviously if you don’t survive it’s there for your loved ones. It’s a tough, horrible situation because the soldiers sign on knowing they could not make it back. That’s what they’re agreeing to. But the family doesn’t often get to decide. They’re not necessarily signing on for that. It’s all the other people who are affected and the cultures that are affected. It’s big thing and it shouldn’t be taken lightly. If there’s any anti-war message in here it’s that these are big decisions and you should never forget the human toll.
Did you walk away from the film having gained a new perspective on war?
You start off on a journey when you make a film and usually [by the end] you’re different. I came in with pretty ambivalent, mixed feelings about war and the military and I think all that is on the screen. As I got closer to it, I came to really appreciate the love/hate relationship in the army—and anyone who’s in the military or in the service anywhere. Like anyone who’s caught in a bureaucracy, you can’t help but develop a love/hate relationship with the military. The individual struggles within the bigger chain of command. And there can be no bigger hierarchy of command than the military. It’s the worst ever invented by humans, as far as that goes. The people on the bottom are inevitably screwed over by systems beyond their control. Everyone’s a little screwed over in the military. So the biggest complainers about the military are the military themselves. They can look at this movie and they don’t think, “Oh, it’s unpatriotic.” They go, “Oh, that’s exactly what it’s like.” I came out with, certainly, a deeper understanding that it’s not a reciprocal relationship. My sympathies are always with the soldiers.
Did you actually consult with the U.S. military when making the film?
We had military consultants. I wanted to get all that right as much as possible. We had some former Marines who helped us out quite a bit. We didn’t have government support, but we didn’t need tanks or any of that. There’s enough former military who are able to advise you on a project like this.
It feels like it would be a very different movie without these specific three guys.
Oh, yeah. I’m the first one to say that if you get three different actors in there you’ve got a completely different movie, for sure. It so relies on their personalities and what these guys brought to it. And the rest of the ensemble, too.
Was it fully scripted or was there any improvisation?
It was all scripted, yeah. But a lot of that improv comes in rehearsal I think. There’s always room for them to throw in a line or go off on something. I edit it. I have editing control, so they’re free to try things. And some really wonderful stuff comes up. So it’s really a combination. They’re more or less doing the same thing over and over, but they’re creative guys.
Does the film reveal something about male friendship?
I don’t know if I would say reveals, but it certainly depicts it. It was fun to show long-term, middle-aged male bonding and male friendship. It’s long-term friendship even though they aren’t great friends because they’re kind of thrown together the way people are thrown together in the service. Life throws you in with people and you just have got to go with it. And you can form some pretty deep bonds. Sal’s [Bryan Cranston] views on those years [in the Marines] couldn’t be more different than Mueller’s [Laurence Fishburne]. Sal kind of loved it. As much as he hated the commanders above it, it made sense to him. It was a good time in his life with a lot of people around.
The story’s set during the Iraq War, but does it have a political relevance to what’s happening today?
Well, on the one hand it’s always relevant. There’s always some war. And these wars never really ended either. I don’t think we’re ever going to get out of Afghanistan. I think we’re there forever. That’s the world’s fear sometimes: The Americans come in and we just never leave. So yeah, it’s relevant. And every stupid thing Donald Trump says, every shallow, ridiculous threat he’s making or not making, or whatever the hell he’s saying that has to do with North Korea seems relevant. It’s always relevant. You just hope the people in charge will not be so cavalier with other people’s lives. You just hope there’s responsible people.
Can watching movies actually help change people’s minds about war?
Yeah, I think so. I’ve always pondered this. There’s a quote from [François] Truffaut from a long time ago about whether there can be an anti-war movie because just by depicting war you promote. That’s why I didn’t want to show battle. I truly believe war movies do perpetuate the next war. They show all the hell of it, but it’s attractive. It hits a button in young men’s minds and they go, “I like all that except the dying part. Well, I won’t die.” I really do believe most war movies do bring about the next war. They’re not helping in the prevention category. I don’t put this in that category because we’re not depicting war, we’re just seeing the after-effects. But anything that makes anyone thoughtful about how these bigger decisions are made is not a bad thing.
Is this the sort of movie you imagined you’d make when you first became a filmmaker?
I couldn’t have made this film as a younger person. I wouldn’t have been interested. It wouldn’t have been right for me 20-plus years ago. But I probably thought I’d slowly age into different stories. This is a middle-aged guy’s movie. And I find myself there chronologically as we speak. I have my own feelings and thoughts about bonding and relationships with old friends. It’s kind of great.