It’s been a running theme of the year in cinema: Films shot before the election are almost unfathomably relevant when, sometimes years later, they are released and tap into something so incendiary in the zeitgeist that it’s as if the screenwriters predicted the future.
Case in point is Last Flag Flying, the new film from director Richard Linklater about three former Vietnam War buddies who are reunited in 2003 on the occasion of one of their sons’ death in the Iraq War.
It’s based on a novel of the same name by Darryl Ponicsán, which was released in 2005 as a sequel to Ponicsán’s debut, The Last Detail, 30 years earlier. (Hal Ashby adapted The Last Detail into a 1973 film.)
Despite Last Flag Flying being written 12 years ago, set 15 years ago, and filmed last year, it’s relevant at this very moment to the extent that, when Bryan Cranston and I sit down to talk about his role in the film, the names mentioned most in our conversation are Donald Trump and Colin Kaepernick.
“It’s not exactly just serendipitous, because I think good stories always resonate,” Cranston says. “Certainly when I read the Last Flag Flying script I related to a lot of it: the sensibility, the conversation, the liberalism, the conservatism, the military aspects, the non-military aspects, the pro-this, the pro-that…”
That Cranston launches our conversation with the iceberg’s tip of arguments different audiences might read within the film speaks to how subjective and timely the film really is.
The American flag—and what it means to honor and serve it—is a topic that waves prominently throughout and speaks to the national conversation about athletes taking a knee during the national anthem, how we treat veterans and military families, and what it means to be a patriot.
Cranston plays Sal Nealon, a bar owner in Virginia who boozes to self-medicate what might be undiagnosed PTSD from his Vietnam War days. When he’s contacted by his former war comrade Larry “Doc” Shepard (Steve Carell) and reunited with their friend Reverend Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), his complicated feelings about his service and the worth of the war he fought begin to bubble to the surface—especially as the reason for Doc’s visit presents itself.
Doc’s own son has just died serving in Iraq, under suspicious circumstances. Doc is infuriated, and so is Sal, who remembers his time at war as both the peak of his life and the reason his future never amounted to much.
Through their mourning over Doc’s son, the film explores how a war the trio fought decades ago continues to shape their lives. Mirroring their frustrations over whether Doc’s son died fighting a war the country never should have started is their own grappling with similar feelings about Vietnam.
“That’s what we explore in Last Flag Flying, the similarities between a G.I. in Vietnam and a G.I. in the Iraq War,” Cranston tells us. “We try to do it honestly. It’s not a slam of the military. It’s an examination of it. To say there are good parts and there are bad parts, just as with anything in life.”
Cranston’s arc in Last Flag Flying might be the most captivating. Sal is a blowhard, whose beer belly leads the way while he ribs his long-lost friends, shrugs off responsibility, and spins wild war story yarns. But he’s also tender and compassionate, sensitive to the shadow the trio’s bad memories cast over their reunion, the complex legacy of the war they fought together, and the turmoil surrounding the burial of Doc’s son.
The outlandish comedy beats befit the former star of Malcolm in the Middle, who also guest starred over the weekend on the new season of Curb Your Enthusiasm. But the Breaking Bad Emmy-winner also brought with him a unique perspective on the film and Sal’s journey, having just portrayed President Lyndon B. Johnson in both the Broadway play and TV movie adaptation of All the Way, which foreshadows Johnson’s escalation of the war in Vietnam.
“There’s a good argument to say that we shouldn’t have been there,” Cranston says. “So, too, is the argument in Iraq. What was our purpose there? They weren’t involved in 9/11. What was our reasoning to be there? Someone else’s grudge that they’re holding? Some ego?”
Sal considers his time in the military the best spent of his life, and his decision to join the most noble thing he ever did. But that doesn’t keep him from cursing George W. Bush and his decision to invade and questioning the value of war, no matter how valiantly fought.
I bring up to Cranston the idea of “liberal patriotism” that director Richard Linklater introduced in relation to a conservative friend’s response to Last Flag Flying: that you can question and have complicated feelings about war but still love your country.
“I think it’s an injustice to look at liberals and say they’re non-patriotic because they have a more passive dove approach to world politics,” Cranston says. “That has really very little to do with it.”
Cranston, like many actors in the current political climate, has felt no qualms about making his feelings about the president or the state of the country heard.
It’s not all pessimistic either; he recently made headlines for asserting that, though certainly not the president he wanted to take office, he is rooting for Trump to succeed. There’s no value in gloating about his failures, he says. A solid future for the country should be a non-partisan goal, and rooting for that future shouldn’t be considered political blasphemy.
And to that end, he rebukes the idea that because of the industry he works in and the opinions he’s publicly expressed that his feelings, let alone his patriotism, should be discounted.
“I’m a guy who would be deemed a liberal from Hollywood. I think that should be stopped as well,” he says. “That because you align yourself with a social policy that is more liberal than others may be, that doesn’t make you not patriotic. Because I’m not wearing an American flag pin on my lapel doesn’t make me unpatriotic. It’s not that. It’s who you are. It’s your actions. It’s your belief. It’s how responsible you are in your conversations.”
When we spoke to Cranston, Trump was in the midst of a tweet storm of diatribes against the NFL, its players, and fans who supported those who took a knee, following the lead of Colin Kaepernick, during the playing of the national anthem—a storm that hasn’t stopped thundering as the practice and the protests continue.
“I think what he’s doing is very patriotic,” Cranston says about Kaepernick. “Dissent is one of the pillars of being an American. It’s how our country was formed, through dissension. He is not preventing anyone from singing or partaking in how they want to experience that moment. He’s quietly, respectfully, being silent. I think it’s a beautiful way of protesting the racial injustice that he feels is present. And I share that with him. There is an injustice.”
As our conversation turns to topics that are increasingly timely, I ask Cranston what it was about Last Flag Flying that struck a chord when he first read the script—or what was going on at the time that affected how he read it, just as we’re watching the film now through the lens of the country’s current debates.
He struggles to remember what it was exactly, and instead recounts what he feels was “the most poignant moment” of the film’s shoot last year in Pittsburgh.
Shooting began in October of 2016, and finished in December. (I think you know where this story is going.)
The cast had planned to get together and watch the election results trickle in, and had arranged for shooting to be done on time to do so. There were giddy conversations about who was going to bring what to the watch party, with everyone anticipating a celebration.
“All of us, for the most part, expected a different outcome,” he says. “We make no bones about it. We didn’t think this was going to happen. We didn’t think that Donald Trump would become president.”
He remembers riding to the party with Steve Carell, the two of them chatting the entire way about their excitement that the country was about to have its first female president-elect. On the way home: silence.
“It was like a scene out of a movie,” he says. “Neither one of us said a word. We were just shell-shocked. What is that world like? Now we’re experiencing what that world is like, and it’s not a pretty picture.”
But focusing on our divided culture is the wrong play, he maintains. And in many respects, that’s the message he says the film is preaching: that it’s OK to have complicated views about our country, to grapple with what the military is doing, to be a person who supports the troops but is against a war, who despises the president but roots for him to succeed.
He knows that passions run hot in this country when it comes to the military and ideas of patriotism, and this is a film that stokes those fires. Is he concerned about how it might play in a such a loudly divided culture?
“Our job as storytellers is to create a story that has the verisimilitude to the world that we’re trying to be in,” he says. “I think we’ve done that. I think it’s an honest film. I think regardless of where you happen to fall on each side of conservatism or liberalism or hawk or dove, I think you look at it and go, ‘Yeah. There’s some B.S. we have to deal with in the military. Of course there is.’”