THE American people’s trust in their government has long been on the wane.
The origins of this can be traced back to the ‘60s and the escalation of the Vietnam War. Domestic unrest tore at the seams of this relationship as disturbing images of the great nation’s actions in a small southeast Asia country were beamed back to television screens and plastered on newspapers across the globe. Disaster, unnecessary death and an embarrassing defeat.
A long list of events – including Watergate, Iran-contras, impeachment, the Iraq War, extreme renditions and Benghazi – have deepened these wounds. With it, many now see the White House as a place for deceit and corruption – more fit for the cast of House of Cards than Lincoln and Roosevelt.
This mistrust in authority is on display from the opening conversation of Richard Linklater’s latest film Last Flag Flying. A bartender named Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston) talks about his lack of faith in the police force as a disinterested customer gawps at the bar’s television.
Sitting further down the bar is a familiar face yet to announce himself. Larry ‘Doc’ Shepherd (Steve Carell), an old Vietnam buddy of Sal’s, arrives to reconnect with his friend and sets in motion an emotional road trip to retrieve the body of his 21-year-old son – a victim of the Iraq War.
Along with Reverend Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), the trio of veterans relive their past together and, with Saddam Hussein’s capture in December of 2003 looming in the background, question the purpose of their war service.
The story, adapted from Darryl Ponicsan’s novel and an unofficial sequel to 1973 film The Last Detail, is one that touched Bryan Cranston upon his first reading. Speaking to an audience at the Curzon Mayfair, he revealed: ‘I respond to the soul of a story. Does it stay with me? Is it compelling? Did I daydream about it?
‘It is not any different from reading a good novel when you can’t wait to get back to bed the next night and see what the next chapter is going to bring. This [Last Flag Flying] was a beautiful story.’
Sal brings much needed light-heartedness to the film. It comes in the form of ‘furnace’ energy as described by host for the night Ian Haydn Smith, editor of Curzon Magazine. It injects laughter into Linklater’s usual focus on naturalism and hyperrealist interactions.
Upon reading the script, Cranston admitted he was immediately drawn to the character of Sal.
He said: ‘At first I read it [the script] with that kind of objectivity to get the whole sense of the story. And then I read it again looking subjectively at the character of Sal and whether I could fill those shoes. At first, I thought: ‘what a pain in the ass.’ But I also noticed his humanity and his nobility.
‘As difficult as he is, and as challenging socially in his lack of grace, he is also the first person who would help a friend. He would unequivocally be the person you could go to and would be there for a friend. I think we take that for granted sometimes. That is really a lovely characteristic in a human being.’
Despite Sal’s furnace-fuelled fun, his faults are never far from the surface. With no wife and kids, his life appears to have been drifting rather aimlessly since leaving the military. The bar and grill he owns (the grill part has long been abandoned) is fading into insignificance, ebbing away just like Sal.
It is this lack of responsibility in Sal’s life that attracted Cranston to the role. He revealed: ‘I must admit I am very attracted to damaged people. I relate to that – I have some damage myself. Acting for me has been a very cathartic experience. It has been a way for me to work out my therapy.
‘I don’t know what I would do without it. I love to work and I love to be challenged. I look for things that are not necessarily what I’ve done before.’
Cranston is impressive, yet it is Carell who will likely receive most of the acclaim for his subdued performance as Doc. If Sal is the drum in Linklater’s orchestra, as Cranston put it, then Doc is certainly the mournful and reflective strings.
As Cranston explained: ‘My risk was to go too big. What I noticed about Sal was that he would depend on a stoic actor to play Doc. Without that, Sal would feel frivolous and circling round in a masturbatory way. He wouldn’t have a centre.
‘The discipline and show of restraint Steve played in that character as the anchor point, and not feel pressured or tempted to grow or emote, was genius. I mean, really beautiful work – and harder.’
Last Flag Flying – out on January 26th – is a solid addition to Linklater’s library. It quietly laments the pain caused by the Vietnam War and the similar feelings that were evoked in the face of the Iraq War. Those brave men and women who put their lives on the life for a government many no longer trust.
Typically understated and thoughtful Linklater filmmaking. You would not expect anything less.