Richard Linklater Mixes Humor With Tragedy to Tell Vets’ Story in ‘Last Flag Flying’

Richard Linklater may not seem like the most likely director to make a film about war, but the man behind classics such as “Dazed and Confused,” “Before Sunrise” and “Boyhood” has rounded up three of the best men of a certain age in Hollywood – Bryan Cranston, Laurence Fishburne and Steve Carell to do exactly that. “Last Flag Flying,” which was adapted by Linklater and Darryl Ponicsan from Ponicsan’s novel of the same name, reveals through fictional characters the impacts of two controversial wars and how bonds are formed between those called to battle.

Set in 2003, “Last Flag Flying” begins during an ordinary night at a bar Norfolk, VA with bar owner Sal Nealon (Cranston) serving up to the local drunks and one weary traveler, Larry “Doc” Shepherd (Carell), who reveals himself to be Sal’s former buddy from the Vietnam War. Sal readily agrees to accompany Doc on the next leg of his journey, not realizing that they are visiting Richard Mueller (Fishburne), a third brother-in-arms who, to their amazement due to his sordid past, his now a preacher. As Doc appears to be pretty chill up to this point, Sal and Richard are taken aback when he reveals the real reason he tracked them down: His son, Larry Jr., was just killed in action in Iraq and he wants the two of them to accompany him Arlington for his burial.

As heartwarming as all this sounds, there is some underlying tension between the men due to their being involved in some trouble during their tour of duty that resulted in Doc being penalized. The real journey begins after they arrive in D.C. and it is revealed to Doc that Larry Jr.’s death didn’t go down in the manner in which he was originally told. After learning the truth, Doc makes the decision to take his son back to New Hampshire and bury him in a local cemetery, not in Arlington.

Quinton Johnson plays Washington, a fellow Marine and good friend of Larry Jr.’s who has the difficult task of revealing to his buddy’s father the true circumstances of his death. Ordered to escort the body home along with the three men, Washington feels conflicted between his duties and his growing bond with Doc and the others.

Johnson, who previously worked with Linklater on “Everybody Wants Some!”, revealed to Entertainment Voice that he was this internal struggle of Washington’s that attracted him to the role. “The first thing I read through was the monologue where he tells them what happened. I was like, ‘Oh, damn. This is going to be great.’ [Laughs]. What is that moment when a soldier decided to divulge some of the secrets of what really is going on?”

Although the film feels downbeat for a large part, the dynamic between these three men who have been going down different paths for decades keeps things interesting, even humorous. Cranston plays a different kind of role here as the foul-mouth Sal, a nam who seems to have no filter and spouts off whatever truth is on his mind. Part of Sal’s backstory was that he was a career Marine, which is hard to buy here considering his disdain for authority and societal rules in general. However, at the end of the day he has a good heart and would do anything for his “brothers.” This is what the film is really about, the bonds between those who have served together. There are plenty of moments of reflection here, some about the similarities between the wars in Vietnam and Iraq, but thee most poignant moments come when the men reminisce about their own past. Haunted by the death of a fourth friend, the trio end up at the home of the man’s elderly mother (Cicely Tyson), in an emotionally-charged scene made even all the more powerful due to the fact that the older men are essentially in the same predicament as Washington, deciding whether they should tell this woman the full story of her son’s passing, which may ease their consciences but may not bring her much peace.

In true Linklater fashion, “Last Flag Flying” is full of humorous and impactful dialogue. “A lot of it was scripted,” recalled Fishburne. “A lot of it was improved. It was kind of a wonderful mix of both things.”

Johnson spoke about Linklater’s openness when it comes to receiving feedback from his actors regarding dialogue and authenticness. “He’s really laid back. Nothing’s too precious to him, which is not always the case, with anyone, not just directors, but also writers, and he’s a director/writer, so that’s awesome… The way to find the best story is to not be so precious about these things.”

The period during which “Last Flag Flying” was shot was a particularly exciting time for Johnson, as during this period he was cast to play James Madison in Broadway’s “Hamilton,” taking over the role from the original actor. “It was a different atmosphere, but it wasn’t too far off,” revealed Johnson when asked about the experience of going back and forth between the “Last Flag Flying” set and “Hamilton” rehearsals. “Because ‘Hamilton’ is still very rooted in military and kind of a heavy presence, and so was ‘Last Flag,’ so it was not like I was going into ‘Cats.’”

Last Flag Flying” opens Nov. 3 in Los Angeles and New York, Nov. 17 nationwide.