“Shadows are falling and I’ve been here all day,” Bob Dylan laments wearily in “It’s Not Dark Yet.” “It’s too hot to sleep,” he cries, “And time is running away.” It’s a melancholy dirge reflecting on one’s impermanence, reflecting on how much time you have left before you shuffle off this mortal coil. Yet, there’s also a life-affirming quality to the song. I’m still here, the spiritually bruised track says, but you haven’t gotten rid of me yet.
The tune from Dylan’s famous and influential Time Out Of Mind plays over the closing credits of Richard Linklater’s latest drama, “Last Flag Flying,” and like the title of the movie, the song embodies the summation of the director’s thoughtful and autumnal consideration of hanging on as the last man standing.
Based on novelist Darryl Ponicsan’s “Last Flag Flying,” his belated sequel to “The Last Detail,” which was adapted into the seminal 1973 drama by Hal Ashby about two vulgar Marines ordered to bring a young offender to a military prison. Linklater’s movie picks up with the these three Vietnam vets thirty years later, but it’s fair to say it a very loose “sequel.”
There’s the incorrigibly coarse and defiant Sal Nealon (originally played by Jack Nicholson, now Bryan Cranston), Richard “The Mule” Mueller (Otis Young, now Laurence Fishburne) the gruff and blasphemous Marine now turned reformed reverend, and lastly Larry “Doc” Shepherd (Randy Quaid, now Steve Carrell), the kid the men took to the brig thirty years ago. Once reunited, Doc asks a sudden, life-disrupting favor of his former friends — accompany him to the funeral of his son killed in combat in the Iraq War.
Compelled by a sense of guilt and duty, the pair reluctantly agree and what ensues, after the solemn shock of this request, is a funny, sad and profane travelogue across the Southeast where old friends bicker and bond, while tasked with one last somber detail.
As a buddy road trip movie, playing not unlike Linklater’s version of “Grumpy Old Men,” “Last Flag Flying” isn’t always grave. It’s quite funny or at least it tries to be. Comedy is where the movie is at its least convincing and there’s a lot of groan-worthy dad jokes. One crucial scene where the gang, loosened by alcohol, fall into a reminiscing about their Vietnam days and revel in drunken nostalgia is never as comical as it hopes to be.
Uneven as the humor is, there’s strong introspective qualities. Swinging between garrulous and jocular recollections, to more wistful considerations of the past, its scars, their regrets and the ever-dwindling road that’s left to travel, “Last Flag Flying,” is at its best when its mediating on death and the light that dims near the winter years of life.
Characteristically loose, occasionally tedious, as Linklater is wont to do, the shaggy and rambling ‘Flag’ tends to wander in an Altman-like exploratory way; this is a far cry from the tightly-scripted Robert Towne story of “The Last Detail.” Yet it’s marked by its economy of filmmaking. There’s a premium placed on long takes that marinate in the actor’s performances. Exuding a clear affection for his characters, the director just wants to hang out with these guys and hear their stories, and Linklater hangs back and listens.
Speaking of those performances, while Lawrence and to a lesser degree, Cranston, deliver admirable turns (the “Breaking Bad” star is a little too hammy at times), it’s Steve Carrell that steals the show as the sad and lonely Doc trying to mask his grief with an amiable, albeit hound dog-faced front. Yul Vazquez gives an excellent turn as no-nonsense Colonel who butts heads with Doc and attempts to convince Larry to bury his son at a military cemetery with full honors. And the legendary Cicely Tyson provides a moving cameo appearance in one of the movie’s most critical scenes about the moral obligations to the truth versus the notions of letting sleeping dogs lie.
Following the good times college comedy of “Everybody Wants Some!!,” Linklater’s latest effort, will feel like a left turn palate cleanser that works in a very different key. Unlike that movie, the hip Annapurna Pictures is unsurprisingly not distributing the film, with Amazon Studios picking up the reins, and younger audiences looking for a cool Linklater movie have come to the wrong place.
‘Flag’ possesses unexpected cultural relevancy as well. With all the current talk of flags, anthems, knees taken, and what this means about fealty and respect to country, ‘Flag’ could bridge the gap between warring factions and their interpretations of patriotism. Because as a heartfelt, humanist drama about friendship, sacrifice and service, even with its very complicated, even resentful relationship to patriotism and love of country, ‘Flag’ features a universality of prideful emotion that could transcend and speak to both sides.
A bittersweet, earnest contemplation of growing up and growing old, “Last Flag Flying” is a crossroads film about the wistful glow of the past and the unknown path that lies ahead. Given his boyish looks and fresh-faced spirit, you’d never guess that Richard Linklater is 57 years old, but it makes sense that a man approaching his ‘60s would craft a drama this plaintive about taking stock of life.
Throw in a dolorous dash of Levon Helm, the charming, sweet rootsiness of Neil Young and a soulful farewell from Warren Zevon and you’ve struck the musical chord of “Last Flag Flying” in song form. In its deeply affecting final moments, where Linklater beautifully folds the movie’s threads and themes, “Last Flag Flying” coalesces into a poignant portrait of honor, the bonds of brotherhood and coming to terms with mortality. It’s not dark yet, the movie intones, but it’s getting there. [B]
What other songs are in the movie?