In Last Flag Flying, five-time Oscar-nominated filmmaker Richard Linklater has crafted a moving, contemplative reflection on the aftermath of war framed through the eyes of a trio of aging Vietnam veterans who, after one suffers the loss of his only child, embark on a cross-country journey to bury the fallen son. While the film unfolds in 2003 against the backdrop of the Iraq War, Linklater and his cast want you to know the project is meant to be appreciated on its own merits, not as a sweeping political statement about present-day dissension.
“There’s always an echo of the political [especially] right now, but we’re set in ’03, long before the politics of today, so that kind of frees [us] up,” Linklater said at a New York Film Festival press screening Thursday, shortly before the film’s public bow as the annual event’s opening feature. “Politics aside, our job was to represent these guys’ politics… The film is a contemplation of truth and honesty… Are countries honest with their people? Is the mission forthright with what the real mission [means] to the soldier? It’s a complex area. Truth is a blunt instrument, so we were thinking a lot about that as we did it.”
As the central characters, played by Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston, and Laurence Fishburne, begin their journey, matters of grief, regret, and personal transparency come to light — as do painful memories from their days of service and various grievances with the powers that be, as George W. Bush leads the country toward what many would later criticize as a conflict fought without substantive rationale. Still, Linklater hesitates to classify the film as a “war movie,” instead likening it to a “road movie” about personal growth and evolution.
“A lot of people who serve in our military can be very patriotic and love their country and believe deeply that they’re fighting for freedom, democracy, and justice: that’s the mission,” Linklater said. “And then you can still come out of that experience with an intense love-hate [relationship] with it all… you’re all-in, but it’s a big institution [and] you’re going to be screwed over in that institution to varying degrees, and I think we experience that through these characters. … It’s really about the way these two wars talk to each other and echo one another… They don’t usually make war movies about guys hanging out 30 years later… it’s always mission-based and immediate. I was interested in the long-term [effects of war].”
Fishburne later jokingly revealed the production had “fun” shooting the film the day after the 2016 presidential election, though he was adamant about freeing the project from ties to contemporary political happenings.
“We’re not fitting into that. We ain’t got nothing to do with that,” he responded when asked if the film’s tone fit in with current headlines about honor and respect with regards to the American flag; supporting actor J. Quinton Johnson agreed.
“It’s interesting when you’re creating art and telling stories, the world [projects] layers that are then imposed upon the [film] that we [shot] for a few weeks in Pittsburgh [last year]. That’s an interesting phenomenon,” he explained. “Different groups, veterans, millennials, people that have family members who’ve served, [people from] different socioeconomic backgrounds will have different opinions and takeaways from this film because of what’s going on in our current climate… but [this film] could never have anything to do with what’s going to happen in 2017.”
Last Flag Flying opens Nov. 3.