Richard Linklater's New Film 'Last Flag Flying' Handles The Trauma Of War

Nov 4, 2017
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NOEL KING, HOST:

Over the past two decades, director Richard Linklater has made a name for himself as an indie filmmaker's indie filmmaker. Linklater has a style that captures the messy, awkward and sometimes tender rhythm of real life and real conversation. His latest film is called "Last Flag Flying." It's a movie about war, but it's not a war movie in the traditional sense.

"Last Flag Flying" takes a close look at the lingering toll of war across generations and how soldiers make sense of the losses they've endured for their country. The film stars Steve Carell as a Vietnam veteran named Doc Shepherd whose son, a Marine, has recently been killed in the Iraq War. Doc sets out to find his old platoon mates, played by Bryan Cranston and Laurence Fishburne, to help him bury his son.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LAST FLAG FLYING")

LAURENCE FISHBURNE: (As Reverend Richard Mueller) Not going to fit. How're you going to get him home now? What are you going to do, Sal, strap the coffin to the roof of your car?

BRYAN CRANSTON: (As Sal Nealon) We could do that, just need a little help lifting it up. Maybe we can get that kid with the [expletive] up ear.

FISHBURNE: (As Reverend Richard Mueller) Don't be ridiculous.

CRANSTON: (As Sal Nealon) Why not? You know a better way to be? You wish you could be ridiculous, but it's too late now.

FISHBURNE: (As Reverend Richard Mueller) Doc, you got to let the government transport the body. I mean, it's the kind of thing they're good at.

STEVE CARELL: (As Larry 'Doc' Shepherd) I don't like the government right now.

FISHBURNE: (As Reverend Richard Mueller) You don't have to.

CARELL: (As Larry 'Doc' Shepherd) I don't trust it anymore.

CRANSTON: (As Sal Nealon) Hey, you know what? We could rent a truck.

KING: Richard Linklater is with us now from our studios in Culver City, Calif. Richard, thanks for being here.

RICHARD LINKLATER: Thanks for having me.

KING: Your work is so often so personal and such a part of your own life. What drew you to a story about wars in Vietnam and Iraq?

LINKLATER: Yeah. Well, you know, I grew up during the Vietnam era. I'd say from that time I could remember to the time I was about 14 years old, we were in that war. And then many years later, I saw our country getting into the Iraq War, you know, very - I was very attuned to that and in the run up to it kind of appalled by the - I don't know - the dialogue got so simpleminded and the slogans. You know, if you weren't for the war, you were unpatriotic. I was just really studying as a kind of an impotent citizen. You know, what can any of us do? You know, you can march. I marched with 4 million people before that war got started. I was just kind of going, wow. I can't believe this is happening. It makes no sense. I mean, they're not a threat to their neighbors, much less us halfway around the globe, but here we go.

But anyway, the film's not specifically about that. It's really about these three Vietnam veterans who've come together because one of their sons has been killed in that war. But it's really about their journey and their reuniting and how they've changed over 30 years or how they've not changed and the echoes of these two wars on each other. So it's really a depiction of that and I guess grieving, but it's also very funny too. You know, it's, you know, Sal's character, the Bryan Cranston character is very funny. He's clearly in a lot of pain and self-medicating, but, you know, he's intent on having a good time no matter what.

KING: This is a movie that obviously has a very heavy tone to it. These three men are traveling to bury the son of one of them. But as you say, there are really some very, very funny moments in it. One of them that cracked me up was these three middle-aged guys are in a mobile phone store. And Bryan Cranston's character, Sal, is trying to convince his two friends to get on board with buying cellphones. Let me - let's play a clip of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LAST FLAG FLYING")

FISHBURNE: (As Reverend Richard Mueller) What if I don't like it? I mean, we get stuck with a contract for - what? - a year, two years?

KATE EASTON: (As Phone Shop Clerk) Just two years.

FISHBURNE: (As Sal Nealon) Two years.

CRANSTON: (As Sal Nealon) What if you fall down, have you thought of that? With your gimpy legs, that's a real possibility. What if you fell into a ditch and you can't get up and nobody can see you? I mean, it is adios, padre. But with your mobile phone, you get it out. And if you can see the numbers, you know, glasses are - oh, I can't see. Help me. Help me. I've fallen, and I can't get up.

EASTON: (As Phone Shop Clerk) Guys - 911 calls don't count against your minutes either.

CRANSTON: (As Sal Nealon) That's - come on.

FISHBURNE: (As Reverend Richard Mueller) All right. All right. If I say yes, will you shut the hell up so we can get our drink?

CRANSTON: (As Sal Nealon) I'll shut up.

KING: That moment is so natural and so funny. They sound like everybody's dad. How did you pull that off? Were they adlibbing?

LINKLATER: We were trying to depict the last three guys to get cellphones in our culture in '03, you know. Everybody - the last holdouts. But that scene's kind of like every other scene in the movie. You know, we rehearsed a bunch. We really kept working on the script. But the guys are so inventive and bring so much to it, you know. I really like, you know, actors who are intelligent and funny and willing to work hard. But it's pretty much - we shot the same scene, you know, over and over and over all day just like any other production.

KING: Steve Carell pretty much disappears into this role as the grieving father. He's almost unrecognizable. It is extraordinary. Tell me about working with him to develop this character.

LINKLATER: Yeah. I think Steve was coming from a place, I mean, personally, you know, he had - his dad is a World War II vet and kind of stoic and never talked about it much like so many from that generation. And Steve had just lost his mom, so the grief was kind of recent. And he saw how his dad responded.

And, you know, as a parent of two kids that are, you know, teenagers, and that idea of loss and grieving are something - it's something he wanted to explore. And it was really beautiful to see him kind of feel his way through a performance. The worst thing in the world has happened to this guy, so it's really a portrait of that and how you come to terms with the anger and then how you reconcile that with, you know, the commitment that your son's shown to his country also.

KING: For a kind of buddy movie about three middle-aged men, there's not really a sense in this film that they are trying to recapture their youth. They seem like they're trying to get away from it, to get as far away from Vietnam and, indeed, from each other as they can. And I wonder, I'm very curious, a lot of your work has focused on youth. That was "Boyhood," that was "Dazed And Confused," "Everybody Wants Some!!" about a college baseball team. Is this you aging as a director in some way, I wonder?

LINKLATER: (Laughter) Well, middle age had to show up at some point.

(LAUGHTER)

KING: It always does.

LINKLATER: I'm in that phase. Yes, it was fun to portray guys who were, you know, as they look back, you know, their adulthood is - they can look back 30 years and still be adults. You know, this is stuff that happened to them in their 20s in Vietnam. And now, they're in their 50s. I don't know if I totally agree that they're not trying to relive. I think Cranston's character is, you know. Sal, he runs a bar. He hasn't changed that much. He never married or had a family or...

KING: He makes fun of the others for growing up.

LINKLATER: Yeah. He seems to make fun of their maturity, that Laurence Fishburne's character, Mueller, has, you know, he has a congregation. He's a man of the cloth. He's leading a very - in his mind - you know, noble life. He's got grandkids and, you know, a purpose. And that just drives Sal crazy. He's just needling him endlessly until he - he wants his old buddy back. He wants the hell-raising guy. So, I mean, Sal's kind of a portrait of a, I guess, stunted growth, alcoholic, self-medicating, you know, all these things. But he will take a bullet for you. He will be there for you. You know, his loyalty is unquestioned. Very different responses to their past, I think.

KING: You've made this film. It is entertainment, but it is about very big things. It's about patriotism. It's about lies. It's about war. It's about love and friendship. When people walk out of the theater, what do you want them to be thinking about?

LINKLATER: That's a big question. You know, I head into a movie and I don't necessarily know that starting, you know. I really want to explore a subject and figure out what I feel. And obviously, when you get to these subjects, war and, you know, you have a lot of complex feelings - you know, how you feel about the troops, how you feel about the command, you know. It's a - what is patriotism? Who owns the flag? These are big questions that don't get answered very easily. By the end of the movie, these guys who were kind of complaining about the military and this war are in their dress blues.

They elected not to bury Larry Jr. in Arlington. They're burying him in his hometown, but they are giving - he's in his dress blues, and they're burying him with a flag, a certain honor. And the guys are in their dress blues folding the flag and going through the rituals. And I've had some people say, you know, that's kind of really patriotic or really this or that. And I'm saying, you can call it whatever you want. They are respecting the commitment of that young soldier who put his life on the line for his country in the purest way. And it's up to the country and the command what they did with that. The patriotic thing is to, actually, if you care about the troops, to make sure that they're actually well taken care of and that if they're going to die, it's going to be really for our freedoms, you know.

KING: Richard Linklater is a director and screenwriter. His new film, "Last Flag Flying," is out in theaters on Friday. He joined us from NPR West in Culver City, Calif. Richard Linklater, thank you so much.

LINKLATER: All right, nice talking to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.