Contemplating truth in ‘Last Flag Flying’: An interview with Richard Linklater

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“Dazed and Confused” brought us a portrait of teenage camaraderie set in the ‘70s. “Everybody Wants Some!!” takes this same concept and applies it to a band of friends in their college years.

In an interview with The Daily Californian, director Richard Linklater describes the characters in his latest film — “Last Flag Flying” — as “a pack of guys, trying to do something in the world for better or worse. Often worse.”

Linklater’s films have a penchant for several easily observable tendencies: narratives centered upon a group of guy buddies, the careful construction of a specific time period and an emphasis on naturalistic dialogue. While “Last Flag Flying” incorporates these elements, what truly sets this film apart from Linklater’s typical wheelhouse is its complex musings on the topics of grief and truth.

“Last Flag Flying” follows Larry “Doc” Shepherd (Steve Carell), a veteran who served in Vietnam. Having recently lost a son in the Iraq War, he takes a journey with his former military comrades Reverend Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne) and Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston) in order to bury his son and hopefully come to terms with his own grief. The film is long, at just over two hours, and the audience truly feels the length of the journey these characters take — in a good way.

The personal toll that Doc suffered is not only articulated through the film’s duration, but through its very visual language.

On the subject of cinematography, Linklater remarked that he wanted the film to be visually pessimistic. “I was like, OK, there will be no sunlight in this movie. It’s just gonna be rain and kinda gritty — a lot of dark. Just kinda wet, cold, rainy, grey was the color palette.”

The settings of dreary industrial landscapes, empty train stations and nighttime-drenched freeways effectively capture Linklater’s sentiment. Ironically, the film sets itself close to Christmas, yet, as Linklater articulates, “There is no Christmas for Doc this year.”

Indeed, the gloomy environment offers no solace or promise of Yuletide to the audience. Instead, the audience finds comfort in the Linklater-brand comradery between the film’s central characters.

The interactions between Carell, Cranston and Fishburne are where the movies truly shines, and Linklater once again proves his mastery over constructing moving and believable dialogue. Linklater describes how the actors each brought a mutual respect and admiration for each other’s work to the project: “My job was to just let the movie be what it wanted to be with these three guys. Luckily, they really respected one another. … Each guy was looking forward to working with the other two,” Linklater recounted. “Those guys really bonded — it was beautiful to watch.”

That it is.

The scenes of the film range in tone from hilarious, drunken exchanges in a cramped train car to a devastating letter read at the film’s conclusion. However, what remains the same is the strength of the performances and the friendship that seems to so believably exist between all three characters. Furthermore, these characters get to develop over time through their respective opinions when it comes to the truth.

To fans familiar with Linklater’s previous filmography, Cranston’s character will be most recognizable. He’s critical of authority, comedic and quick to call out lies whenever he sees them. However, as Linklater explains, truth is a blunt instrument, and “Last Flag Flying” argues that sometimes lies are necessary.

“There’s a difference between, like, truth and honesty maybe,” said Linklater. “Truth can be a greater spiritual thing. Honesty is just, you know, a lie.”

“I had a tagline for the movie: ‘The lies that bind,’ ” he laughed.

It is definitely an apt tagline. “Last Flag Flying” is very much an exercise in the the duality of lies — and the way they both tear people apart and bring them together.

A lie serves as a catalyst in a confrontation between the central characters and the mother of their fallen comrade. The emotional stakes are high in this scene, as the characters are forced to make a choice between an appealing lie and a heartbreaking truth. Ultimately, the film doesn’t take a firm stance in either direction on the topic of lies, but it leaves the audience to ponder their own feelings throughout the film.

Linklater is similarly ambiguous about his own position on this topic. But he does assert that lies have become a component of everyday life: “It’s social lubrication — it’s like verbal alcohol. You know, just how we can all kinda get along.”

And the characters do get along. Throughout the whole of Linklater’s beautifully paced film, his characters grapple with each other as well as with larger complex questions. The film’s bittersweet final scene, according to Linklater, was always set in stone, provided that the “film earned that ending.”

Although “Last Flag Flying” focuses on the loss of one individual, the film shines because it truly captures human elements of grief and lies. The film firmly centers people at its heart through the camaraderie of the central characters.

Friendship is the light at the end of the tunnel when one is confronted with the gravity of grief and the audience emerges from the other side of “Last Flag Flying” truly believing that Linklater’s ending is earned.

Contact Sarah Alford at [email protected].
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