Last Flag Flying, Lady Bird
If you were of age during the Vietnam War, your objection to it could largely be boiled down into a simple phrase: It was a stupid war, and who would want to lay down their life for that?
Imagine what it might be like for a veteran of that era to see an even stupider war come along to demand the lives of your children. That’s at the core of Last Flag Flying, set in 2005, in which three Vietnam vets who haven’t seen each other since their service ended reunite when one of them loses a son in Iraq.
The grieving father is “Doc” Shepherd (Steve Carrell). Younger than his friends, he ended his career in the Navy brig after taking the fall for something all three of them were responsible for. Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston) owns a bar in Virginia, mostly because with minimal effort it provides a way to support his drinking and persistent need to shoot off his mouth. Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne) was headed in the same direction until he heard the word and became a preacher.
As you might suspect with this cast and director Richard Linklater, Last Flag Flying is an actor’s showcase. As such, it’s wholly successful, the three characters disparate enough to give the three players plenty to work with. One might have asked for a little more care in the plotting, which here and there hints at past traumas that we expect will be hashed out but leaves us wanting. (Maybe I missed it, but there’s a thread involving Cicely Tyson as the mother of another soldier whose significance I didn’t get, other than to provide the lesson that truth isn’t always the best policy.) But by all means, go see it, enjoy.
And skip this next part if you want:
Last Flag Flying is, as you may have heard, a sequel to Hal Ashby’s 1973 film The Last Detail. If you agree with me that that movie is one of the best of a great decade, you’re going to have your expectations raised for Linklater’s film. And you’re likely to be mighty confused.
Both movies were based on novels by Darryl Ponicsán (whose experience in the Navy led to another first-rate 1970s film, Cinderella Liberty). Ponicsán wrote the later book in 2005 as a direct sequel to the earlier one, as a vehicle to comment on the Iraq War. Linklater wanted to film it at the time and the two collaborated on a screenplay, but set it aside when the realized the situation was still too current.
By the time they came back to it, the story was substantially re-worked and the characters had taken on new lives independent of the ones in Last Detail. The problem with the end result is that enough remains to confuse both viewers who know the earlier movie as well as (in different ways) viewers who don’t. I would give you some examples, but it’s not the kind of thing you can do concisely. (A fast attempt: Cranston’s performance can easily be seen as evoking Jack Nicholson from Last Detail, but there’s no way in hell that Carrell is the same guy played in 1973 by Randy Quaid. The event in their shared past is referred to but unexplained in Flying, but while it’s similar to what happened in Detail, it’s clearly different.) I can’t tell if Linklater and Ponicsán wanted overlap or if they just spent so much time reworking the material that they lost track of what did and didn’t stand on its own. I can only advise you Detail fans to try not to think about that movie while enjoying this one.
The opening scene of Lady Bird, which lasts maybe five minutes, is a perfect self-contained short film with a laugh-out-loud punch line. A mother and daughter are driving to visit a prospective college. A perfectly cordial chat turns in the blink of an eye into a battle, in a way that often happens in life that drama is hard-pressed to capture.
The good news is that the film doesn’t fall off from the standard it sets in opening. Set in the same era as Last Flag Flying—the Iraq War is a persistent background—it stars Saoirse Ronan as Christine, senior at a Catholic high school in a bland area of Sacramento. She prefers to be called Lady Bird, a nickname she has devised for herself. As that indicates, she is an ordinary girl desperate to be extraordinary (which, of course, makes her even more ordinary). And as most of us know, it’s hard to be special when the exact nature of your specialness isn’t quite clear to you.
Lady Bird was written and directed by Greta Gerwig, making her debut behind the camera after a career starring in movies that not enough people have seen. She hit her stride collaborating as a writer and actress with Noah Baumbach, and this solo effort makes clear that she brought just as much to films like Frances Ha and Mistress America as he did. Lady Bird moves along in concise scenes that understand that the best jokes are fast. Loosely based on Gerwig’s own teenage years, it’s a film with an appealingly generous nature, and features Laurie Metcalf in a tailor-made role as Lady Bird’s mother, a psychiatric nurse who can’t recognize her passive-aggressive reactions to her frustrations with family and financial problems.