The 55th annual New York Film Festival kicked off Thursday night with the world premiere of Richard Linklater’s “Last Flag Flying.” This is Linklater’s third NYFF film but first opening night and this spot is a significant one.
In his introductory remarks at the 6 p.m. screening at Alice Tully Hall, the director told the full house, “I’m so thrilled to be having the world premiere here,” he said. “I’ve been to the New York Film Festival over the years and it is such an honor to be opening night when you really think of the films that have had this slot in the list of cinema history, the directors and the films that have occupied this. It’s such an honor and such a thrill.”
“Last Flag Flying” stars Bryan Cranston, Laurence Fishburne and Steve Carrell as Vietnam vets who reconnect under tragic circumstances: mild-mannered, slump-shouldered Doc (Carrell), is on his way to Arlington National Cemetery to bury his only son, killed in Iraq. Alone in the world, Carrell’s character turns to his old wartime buddies for support and turns up on their doorstep to their surprise.
The former wild guy, nickname “Mueller the Mauler” for his sexual proclivities (Fishburne) has become a staid pastor, with a sassy and kind church lady wife (perfectly played by Deanna Reed-Foster). And Sal (Cranston) owns a dive bar in Norfolk, Virginia and is probably an alcoholic but willing to go along on the ride. The veteran actors have terrific chemistry and deliver Ponicsan and Linklater’s punchy lines to create just the right balance of humor, pathos and humanity.
(Fishburne and Cranston turned up for the film’s premiere, but Carrell, Linklater said at the press conference earlier in the day, was shooting a movie where he was in every scene so he could not attend the film’s opening. “He better be,” cracked Fishburne._
“Last Flag Flying” is based on Darryl Ponicsan’s novel, and is a sequel to the author’s own 1970 book, “The Last Detail,” which was made into a film by Hal Ashby, starring Jack Nicholson. Ponicsan co-wrote that screenplay with Robert Towne.
Ponicsan co-wrote the screenplay for “Last Flag Flying” with Linklater and described that collaboration to me on the red carpet as “the most pleasant experience I’ve ever had in writing a script.”
I asked the author about the balance of comedy and drama and if it was always there in the script.
“It was in the book. Some of the comedy was in the book and in the script and it just kind of blossomed when these guys got together. It’s not an imposed comedy. It’s a comedy that grows out of the getting together and the situation,” he said. “Some old people look at growing old and they see that it’s funny. Yeah it sucks but you gotta laugh about it and that’s what happens here.”
On the red carpet at the film’s premiere, I asked Fishburne about his banter with Cranston, which are some of the funniest moments of the film. “With master actors like Bryan Cranston or Steve Carrell you can swing like that.”
Richard Linklater described “Last Flag Flying” as “a road trip” movie rather than a war movie earlier in the day at the press conference.
“This doesn’t really have the trappings of a war movie. We’re not in battle, so this is so domestic,” he said. “It just happens to be these vets in this particular situation. I wasn’t really sure what genre we were.” What he was interested to convey was the way “these two wars talk to each other and echo each other” and mainly how the men’s reflection on their wartime experience affected them many years later.
“They don’t usually make war movies about 30 years later guys hanging out. It’s always mission based. Mainly I was interested in the long term effects and how these guys changed and how they were affected and what it does to you.”
At the end of the film, Fishburne and Cranston’s character put on military uniform and perform the flag ceremony, folding the flag just so and then they present it to the father of the dead marine.
They rehearsed and studied with a consultant on how to properly fold the flag said Fishburne.
“We kept being told take your time. He told us how to make sure it was right, not quick and so that’s how we did it. The hand position was very specific and how it was presented…The step by step actual decorum to it was really impressive.”
The significance of the flag and how it relates to patriotism has become a hot button issue and one that Fishburne did not want to get into at the press conference.
But in the evening at the film’s premiere, Bryan Cranston replied to the Daily News reporter’s question about Colin Kaepernick’s protest and whether it was disrespectful to that flag, “I think it’s the perfect form of dissent because it’s not in your face. It is not preventing others fro appreciating the anthem in their own way as they choose to celebrate which is also perfectly wonderful. It is not moving. It is not talking. It is not distraction. It is silent. It’s a movement. It’s stillness,”he said. “You could not plan a more respectful way of protest than what he’s doing. I don’t see it any other way.
After the screening of “Last Flag Flying,” guests moved to the traditional opening night party at Tavern on the Green, which was in full swing until 2 am. Guests included Ethan Hawke and from the film Richard Linklater, Lawrence Fishburne, J. Quinton Johnson and Darryl Ponicsan.
Gay Talese, the prolific and always elegant Manhattan cultural icon, told me he loved “Last Flag Flying” and dissected some of the scenes that were stand outs to him. Later in the evening he went off to speak to Linklater. Talese’s most recent book, “The Voyeur’s Motel,” about a Colorado motel owner who spied on his guests for three decades, inspired the documentary “Voyeur,” directed by Myles Kane and Josh Koury, which will premiere at the festival. This provocative and divisive film, which inspired discussion and disagreement at the film’s press screening several weeks ago, is as much about Talese and his career as it is about the sleazy motel owner. Talese, who did not work on the film, has not seen the documentary and told me he would see it for the first time Wednesday at its premiere.
The NYFF will run through October 15.