The New York Film Festival began this year on a note of muted jubilation, like a fanfare of sighs. Such was the response to the world premiere of Last Flag Flying by Richard Linklater, a favorite of the festival’s organizers and audiences for many years, who stood for the first time in the coveted but perilous spot reserved for the director of the opening feature. Coveted, because the selection of Last Flag Flying elevated the once-raffish author of Slacker to the company of Buñuel, Varda, Fassbinder, and Kurosawa. Perilous, because the first night—which must serve both artistic and fundraising agendas—has also sometimes gone to the likes of Woody Allen’s Celebrity, the picture that proved that no movie is too bad to open the New York Film Festival.
No one I spoke with thought Last Flag Flying fell to anything like the wretchedness of Celebrity, or even the cheesy respectability of other first-night classics like Chariots of Fire and The Queen. But although people went away with their love for Linklater undiminished, they hadn’t cheered for him as they’d wanted: as the vindicated practitioner of an independent American cinema that can be at once experimental, humanistic, and accessible. The word “disappointment” never came up, at least within my earshot, but I heard many instances of an extended, open-ended “Well…”
Some of those drawling shrugs came from me. But after a little reflection, I’ve begun to think that Linklater has his core audience right where he wants us: more discomfited than joyful, more thoughtful than triumphant. He has risked taking on subjects that are new for him: the aftermath of war and the fortunes of American men a crucial half-generation older than his usual characters. The conventional narrative approach he’s applied to this material poses no difficulties for an audience. And yet, because of his subtlety and ambivalence, Linklater gives no comfort to the viewers of Last Flag Flying, no possibility of understanding the story in terms of political points scored. The only agenda—should you accept it—is to mourn.
A road movie of the lurching variety, which chugs fitfully through military towns from Norfolk, Virginia, to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Last Flag Flying plays out in places built to cramped and thrifty specifications—gloomy bars and flimsy motel rooms, storefronts banged together with particle board, Amtrak cars that have smelled dusty since their first run—with the cement-floored cavern of an Air Force hangar as the sole, chilling instance of any ambition toward grandeur. Ubiquitous Christmas trees neither cheer these spaces nor persuade you to ignore the bad weather, which is predominantly a drenching downpour. The time is December 2003, when, as the characters’ journey begins, American troops are about to capture Saddam Hussein. For some young soldiers in Iraq, though, the present-day war is already over; while for the middle-aged veterans who are the focus of Last Flag Flying, their war of more than 30 years ago seems never to have ended.
Doc is the one who sets off the plot and provides its disconcertingly vague center. Played by Steve Carell, who has been outfitted with a droopy mustache, health-plan eyeglasses, and a manila envelope loosely filled with cash, this meek, nondescript fellow shows up one wet night at a tavern located unpromisingly beneath a highway in Norfolk, where, despite being one of only two customers, he has to prompt the bartender to look at him. Recognition dawns at last on the saloon keeper, Sal, a bearded, booming Marine Corps veteran played by Bryan Cranston with the kind of wild-man, insult-comic energy that attracts adolescents and makes mature people head for the door. He sees that Doc is a buddy from Vietnam, a Navy man who, despite his evident mildness, ended his tour with two years in the brig.