As divided as the nation is today on the political spectrum, five-time Oscar-nominated filmmaker Richard Linklater (“Boyhood,” “Dazed and Confused,” “Slacker”) hopes his latest film, “Last Flag Flying,” finds a balance and shows audiences from opposite sides of the aisle that a majority of Americans love their country and that patriotism doesn’t have to be defined under one set of guidelines.
In “Last Flag Flying,” Linklater tells the story of three Vietnam veterans on a heartbreaking journey. After his son is killed in the Iraq War, Doc Shepherd (Steve Carrell) tracks down his two old war buddies, Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston) and Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), and asks them to attend the funeral with him. Plans change, however, when Doc decides he wants to bury his son in their hometown and not at Arlington National Cemetery. The trio set off on a road trip up the East Coast where they reminisce about their time in the military and attempt to exorcise demons from their own past.
I caught up with Linklater, 57, to talk about his new film, why there now seems to be a litmus test for patriotism, and the need for a transparent government.
Normally, movie audiences will get the war film, but very rarely the post-war film. Do you think it’s harder to sell heroism when you can’t see it on the battlefield?
Yeah, it’s a different notion, isn’t it? [Post-war films] don’t take the hero and sacrifice him for his buddies. I think we have to understand what went on [in these wars]. We have to respect what they lived through. They put their asses on the line. [“Last Flag Flying”] isn’t about traditional heroism, which I wasn’t interested in at all. I don’t really trust that. We know what heroism is. That’s what soldiers do. They’re there for their buddies.
Did you try to stay balanced with some of the more polarizing issues the film presents or did you want to take the opportunity to inject some personal opinions as a filmmaker?
It is kind of a balance — a tonal challenge. It’s a bit of a minefield of politics when you talk about war and committing American citizens to battle and the toll it takes on the people involved. It’s a tough subject. I think the film ultimately expresses that a lot of people come out of the military with their own love/hate relationship with it. Nobody thinks about the military more than the military itself. They sign onto this big, abstract mission and then they can’t predict what exactly is going to come out of it.
We live in a society now where people are defining what patriotism should be. What’s your take on these kinds of litmus tests?
Who are we to judge someone’s patriotism or what their experience is? I think from the start, everyone is a patriot and loves their country. After we realize that, we can have these kind of differing opinions about how to proceed through certain issues. Everybody wants to judge so quickly these days. They don’t even take the time to inform themselves. It’s always a typical discussion about freedom of expression and other people’s views about what it means to be a patriot. Patriotism has a lot of different forms. There’s a political divide — blind patriotism versus a more critical patriotism.
What led you to the trio of Cranston, Carrell and Fishburne? Did you cast for each character individually or was is more about the ensemble?
We just tried to get the best person for the part. You float a script out there and you hope you get a response. I was just blessed that these three guys were available and that they wanted to do it. They really wanted to work with one another. Working with three guys at the top of their game is what it felt like. I couldn’t be happier. They left everything on the battlefield.
We’re inundated with the 24-hour news cycle, however, we still don’t get the full story about what is happening in the wars the U.S. is fighting in. What is it going to take to get answers?
Honesty and transparency go a long way. Families need their answers and we need our answers, too. We’re paying for [these wars]. We have the right to know what our country is doing around the world and why. Then, we can decide if that’s really what we want to be doing. But once you find out you’re being lied to, it all changes. This subject deserves our deepest, truest inquiry and scrutiny. But there’s always a big force against that. It’s painful. Each life is very precious and everyone deserves full disclosure.