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Richard Linklater on his new film: 'I don't think we've gotten over Vietnam'

Director Richard Linklater on the set of
Director Richard Linklater on the set of "Last Flag Flying."
Photo by Wilson Webb

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Richard Linklater’s new movie, "Last Flag Flying," stars Steve Carrell, Laurence Fishburne and Bryan Cranston as military veterans who served in Vietnam together.

Fast forward to 2003 when they’ve reunited to deal with the fallout of a different war.

Carrell’s character’s son has been killed fighting in the Iraq War. Fishburne and Cranston travel across the country with him to retrieve the body. In 2003, there was a media blackout on showing coffins of fallen soldiers. Richard Linklater told John Horn that was exactly what he wanted to address in "Last Flag Flying":

We were making a movie about what you don't see. You know, this was the behind the scenes. In a war, I think it's important for everyone to remember — particularly the commander-in-chief — that when you initiate such things, there's a huge human toll. But this was the kind of thing that was hidden, that you don't want to talk about, that they don't really acknowledge that much. They do internally, but not publicly.

Linklater talked about working with his actors on "Last Flag Flying" and the controversies surrounding the American flag today.


On what inspired Linklater to make this film:

I noticed our country grieves too, as well as the individuals involved. I don't think we've gotten over Vietnam. I think that defeat has only solidified and been tougher to take. And I think watching us do the run-up to the Iraq War — knowing what we knew about Vietnam but had been kind of forgotten — was really tragic. We saw it unfolding in real time in front of us. It took a long time to protest the Vietnam War, you know, years and years. But the Iraq war was protested before it happened. Millions of people marched before.

I think the culture wanted a war. The U.S. culture, the media, everybody was kind of in on it. The New York Times was publishing those very favorable articles going for war. If you weren't for the war, you [were] unpatriotic. So it was really tough to go through that.

So the film depicts that first year of the war and the toll that's already being paid. And you know, it's clearly hasn't gone well, [evolving] to kind of an unfolding disaster. But this is just one little story that would not register a blip on any Donald Rumsfeld radar. If he doesn't remember where he was when Pat Tillman died, supposedly, he certainly doesn't care about Larry Jr., Steve Carell's son in this movie.

(L-R): Bryan Cranston, Steve Carell and Laurence Fishburne in Richard Linklater's
(L-R): Bryan Cranston, Steve Carell and Laurence Fishburne in Richard Linklater's "Last Flag Flying."

On how he spoke with Laurence Fishburne, Steve Carell and Bryan Cranston about war:

Certainly, when I first talked to Fishburne, he [said],  I wasn't a Marine, but I was a teenager in "Apocalypse Now" for two years in the Philippines. He went through boot camp, he was with all these military people. He had been in other military movies. We all brought a lot of our dads ... Carell's dad was a World War II vet, so he was really playing off that, his stoicism and what he kind of internalized and never talked about. That really informed his take on his character.

My dad was in the Navy. It seems like [in] our generation, everybody's dad did a hitch in the military. And now there's a bigger disconnect. Nobody's dad [served]. There's a certain kind of warrior class that's evolving in our culture, but it's very disconnected from the general population, which I think is a really unhealthy thing. I think we all need to be in this together, as a culture. I don't like that disconnect, but what can you do about it? That's the way it's been set up ... We would sit around and rehearsals and talk about our experiences and vets we've known, PTSD. The echo of Vietnam looms large, I think, over our childhoods. We all grew up with that body count on TV every night. You know, there was Walter Cronkite: 39 soldiers died today ... My whole life since I could remember, until the time I was I guess about 15, was the Vietnam War.

(L-R): Laurence Fishburne, Bryan Cranston and Steve Carell in Richard Linklater's
(L-R): Laurence Fishburne, Bryan Cranston and Steve Carell in Richard Linklater's "Last Flag Flying."

On what "Last Flag Flying" tries to say about patriotism and who owns the American flag:

I don't know if any one thing can ever answer that. That's for each of us. And, you know, I don't give any ground there as far as like, Hey, I'm a patriot I love my country. It's a nice conundrum of an argument to have ... because every time someone's in war, it's like they're doing it for our freedoms. They're doing it so we can be free, and freedom number one is freedom of expression, First Amendment. And so that would include expressing yourself via the flag. If you wanted to have it upside down, if you want to burn it, if you want to wear it on your clothes. There was a time when I was a kid when people were wearing the flag. It was like the hippie era. It was okay to have it — your pants would be a flag or your shoes. [For] previous generations, that would have been disrespectful...

But in my movie, they're definitely respectful because these guys are in the military. They know what that means. And because they're doing that out of respect for [Carell's] son, that doesn't mean they can't criticize the hell out of the bigger picture. But in the details and in a respect for the fallen, they're not messing around. So I can respect that. That felt like the right vibe.

But that doesn't answer your bigger question about patriotism. There's just two very different approaches: one is to just accept everything [from] the chain-of-command and don't question it. I think that's called blind patriotism; and then there's another kind of patriotism that also loves your country no less than anyone else, but sees us as still trying to bridge the gap between our high ideals and our practices and to try to live up to those ideals. And to admit as individuals that we have this great ideal for ourselves, and none of us quite get there. We're maybe striving for that. And the same as a country, same as humanity. We have these ideals but we fall short constantly. So it shouldn't be a threat to have transparency and point things out and to try to get better. That's that's how we evolve. That's how things do get better, to acknowledge problems or to point out contradictions. And nothing's more contradictory than just the origins of our country right there in the very beginning. So since those high ideals of our origins, we've been playing catch-up ball.  Ever since — and we will continue to.

To listen to the full interview, click on the player above.

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