'Last Flag Flying' Stars Discuss Controversial Film on War, God, America

In a pivotal scene in Last Flag Flying, Richard Linklater’s mournful film about American veterans, actors Bryan Cranston, Laurence Fishburne, and Steve Carell—playing Vietnam vets—are on a train to bury Carell’s soldier son, who died in Iraq. With them is the son’s combat buddy, played by J. Quinton, who brought his friend's body home. After the funeral, he will return to Iraq.

All are Marines, past and present, and the four compare notes on fighting in wars that feel unjust. The larger-than-life character Sal, played by Cranston, says derisively, “Every generation has its war.”

Last Flying Flag diner Fishburne, Carell and Cranston discuss their experience at war while in a midtown diner. Amazon Studios

Though Last Flag Flying is a movie about the military, part of the intended audience, American soldiers, might find it challenging. The idea that veterans should take pride in having fought in Vietnam or Iraq or Afghanistan is quickly tossed out.

Though America’s participation in the Vietnam War is now widely considered a mistake, criticism of Iraq—a conflict that ended in 2011, after eight years—remains a prickly subject for those who fought there (particularly as troops and conflict remain). Last Flag Flying points out the many parallels between Vietnam and Iraq: The voices of the young men and women who served are silenced and ignored, their families are mocked by President Donald Trump, and the Republican Party’s health care plan will tear medical coverage out of the hands of millions of soldiers. 

The screenplay is by Darryl Poniscan, who wrote the 1970 novel The Last Detail, about soldiers in Vietnam, as well as the script for the critically-acclaimed 1973 film that starred Jack Nicholson. Last Flag is based on Poniscan's 2012 book of the same name. Newsweek spoke with Linklater, Poniscan, and the film's stars on the day it opened the New York Film Festival.

lastflagflying Cranston and Carell on a train through Manhattan in 'Last Flag Flying'. Amazon Studios

Are you worried that the politics of the film might overshadow the film's intended humanity, or that it will challenge or offend the military community or veterans?  

Ponicsan: I wrote Last Flag Flying, the novel, as a sequel to my earlier book, The Last Detail. I took those characters from the Vietnam war and asked myself, “What would these guys think of Bush’s wars?” After 9/11, the news was filled with this silent scroll of names and ages, all people who died for someone’s ego. There’s just so much about this conflict that deeply disturbs me. The casket blackout, the concentration on the flag as a symbol… Vietnam changed America because of that big lie that the government fed its people, and Iraq was a second coming. We didn’t learn anything.

That moment in the film where Doc (Carell) watches President Bush on a bar TV, that came from my own experience. I remember having such contempt for Bush during the first invasion. I said what Doc says: “This seems to be worth the lives of our sons and daughters? Is it worth your daughter’s life? What if it were one of your daughters dying over there?”

Linklater: Making a film like this is a minefield of expectations, especially if you take a political angle. There are so many straightforward films about the military that are heroic stories, but many of them are missing a piece. War is hell, right? But these hells were different.

There’s this new binary I’m not comfortable with, where everyone is either a patriot or a weasel with no nuance. There’s no room for humanity there.

Linklater last flag flying J. Quinton Johnson, Richard Linklater, Laurence Fishburne and Bryan Cranston at the NY Film Festival premiere of 'Last Flag Flying'. Todd Williamson / Getty Images for Amazon

Johnson: The scene in the film that really got me is where his commanding Colonel tells Sal (Bryan Cranston) that my character either goes with them on the train for my friend’s funeral, or I get shipped back to Baghdad. That’s crazy, right? These men are eating breakfast while I stand at attention, and everyone in the conversation knows that an American kid going to Baghdad is a bad thing. The Colonel is using me as a tool—he knows Baghdad is a negative, the other guys know it, and I know it. That moment is so powerful to me, because they don’t discuss it, it just is.

Cranston: An actor’s job is simply to find honesty, so I believe any emotion that arises when watching this film is acceptable. It has to be. Whatever sociopolitical statements are being made in the film, well, I believe that’s up to the audience to decide. The thing about making art is that the audience is never wrong.

Fishburne: If the film is challenging to the military community, that’s a good thing. We’re just exploring the complexities of what it all means. I know there are people who serve and want to see their reality reflected, because I’ve been a part of the National Memorial Day concert, which is a healing and moving experience. Veterans need to be allowed to publicly grieve and celebrate what they do, and I think this film is just a grief piece.

fishburne Fishburne as Mueller in 'Last Flag Flying'. Amazon Studios

The characters talk very candidly about God. Only one of them, Mueller (a minister played by Fishburne), is a practicing Christian, but he isn’t made to look foolish for his belief. Can you tell me about the role you see religious faith playing in the film?

Fishburne: To Mueller, God is very real. God is love. But he’s a man of God who was also a Marine, and a hellraiser at that. He has to embody both parts of himself simultaneously, which is what I worked to do.

Linklater: Mueller’s belief in God is deeply authentic, and he lives by that idea of forgiveness. In that way, he was actually saved, that’s a real thing that happened to him. It’s a real thing in many people’s lives.

Bryan, your character mercilessly ribs Mueller for his faith.

Cranston: I think Sal badgers Mueller, not to disrespect him necessarily, but because he wants the old Mueller back. I want him back as my friend, not the man he is now. Sal’s just a little boy trying to get any reaction at all, because he never matured after the war. He’s just as rambunctious as he ever was. Sal’s a mess, Mueller has the physical crutch and the crutch of his religion, and Doc (Carell) has just succumbed to utter despair. They’re all coping with PTSD.

The film emphasizes the bond of brotherhood in the military, which is so important to men fighting but hard to understand, perhaps, for people who never served.

Ponicsan: Surprisingly, the rough cut of the film I saw tested best with women over forty. The film is about the camaraderie of old veterans, which I guess is a private and interesting thing for women their age to watch.

Linklater: I wanted to import humor through realism, because even through tragedy, the human psyche is going to find a way to heal. These men do it through the love of each other. It’s why people tell funny stories at funerals, because life ends and loss accumulates as you get older, and you have to find ways to celebrate on top of all that. I’m also interested in a soldier’s awakening, because it’s such a quintessential human experience, getting halfway through something before you realize it’s not right.

Fishburne: It’s interesting to me that multiple generations of war veterans are now able to speak with each other. Our life spans are longer now, so WWI veterans weren’t able to compare their experiences with WWII vets with the same depth and intensity. Now, we have this multigenerational communication between soldiers who fought in Vietnam and soldiers who served in Iraq or Afghanistan. They can analyze and grieve as one. But, but of course, joy has to exist inside or after a period of grief. That’s what happens when groups communicate.

Johnson: I haven’t told anyone in the press this, but I actually marched military in high school. I was at drum major camp in Texas in the summer. It’s obviously not the same experience as fighting in a war, but I did learn how to physically embody different kinds of attention, and I believed I was representing something bigger than me. That notion isn’t lost on me.

Last Flag Flying is in theaters now.

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