Last Flag Flying + Lady Bird: Illusions, Maturity, and the Iraq War

Image courtesy of Lionsgate.

Last Flag Flying: ***
Lady Bird: ****

At a time when parts of America still haven’t really learned the lessons of the Iraq War, two recent movies both used that conflict and what it represented – namely, the shattering of American illusions of omnipotence – to frame stories of civilians confronting their own shattered illusions. In the first of these releases, Richard Linklater’s Last Flag Flying, the person coming to grips with reality is a former Marine nicknamed “Doc” (Steve Carell). At the start of the film, he’s just learned that his son has been killed in Iraq. And in a fit of grief, he meets up with two people he hasn’t seen since they served together in Vietnam: Sal (Bryan Cranston), a bar owner whose sharp tongue masks his frustration with life, and Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), a onetime libertine who now presides over his own Sunday congregation.

Linklater has built an entire career out of slice-of-life movies – works refreshingly unpretentious in their laid-back representation of the everyday. In a certain sense, Last Flag Flying doesn’t break the mold: plotwise, nothing earth-shattering happens on Doc, Sal, and Mueller’s re-bonding journey up the East Coast, and as with Boyhood and the Before trilogy, that gives Linklater an opportunity to draw out superb performances from his lead actors. Yet this time around, Linklater’s distinctively languid atmosphere and pacing are also accompanied by a presentation of several perplexing philosophical questions. First, Doc’s son died for a war effort that ultimately backfired; does the fact that he believed he was fighting for a worthy cause make his death honorable, or was he merely a delusional government pawn? More generally, are traditional institutions and symbols (the American flag, the government, the army) still worth believing in – even if so many misdeeds have been committed in their name?

Image courtesy of Lionsgate.

Throughout the movie, Linklater wrestles with both of these questions – questions that, in a larger sense, ask whether it’s better to live with the illusion of meaning or face reality in all its meaninglessness. To get his point across better, moreover, Linklater also turns Sal and Mueller into spokesmen for opposing sides of this debate; the former plays the “Life is f—ked up” cynic, while the latter makes the case for the value of emblematic ideals. (The movie features several shots in which they stand on opposite sides of Doc, as though they were blown-up versions of a shoulder angel and devil.) The heated exchanges between the two of them not only make for a riveting watch; in light of recent controversies, they also testify to the fact that this is a dilemma that Americans have always struggled with.

What proves frustrating about Last Flag, however, is that it ultimately cheats the viewer out of a meaningful resolution to this debate. Instead of taking a firm stance in favor of one side, it treats us to a mushy ending that, in essence, tries to get away with a weak “Both ways are great! You can hate the government and celebrate your soldiers’ honor, too!” In the moment, that certainly makes for an uplifting compromise, a gentle way to end a fairly somber story. But the more you reflect on it afterwards, the more you realize that Linklater’s attempt to bridge dichotomies simply dodges the nuances of the arguments and antagonisms he spent so much time developing. He makes, in short, an uncharacteristic attempt at crowd-pleasing sentimentalism – and that’s what ends up ruining an otherwise thoughtful film.

***

In Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, the Iraq War makes its presence known through the occasional background TV news report. Other than that, however, you wouldn’t initially think that Lady Bird has much to do with Last Flag Flying – because whereas Linklater’s story centers on a group of brooding veterans, Gerwig’s concerns Christine (Saoirse Ronan), an uppity Sacramento teen hell-bent on flaunting her individuality. This is a person, after all, who insists that others call her “Lady Bird” instead of the name her parents “forced” on her; dreams of living in New York because “there’s no culture in Sacramento”; and, in an early scene, intentionally ejects herself out of a moving car to spite her mom (Laurie Metcalf). Linklater’s film harks back to classics like William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives; conversely, in its depiction of Christine’s senior year of high school, Gerwig’s work continues the legacy of more recent “teenage drama” movies like The Edge of Seventeen.

It turns out, however, that like the veterans of Last Flag, Christine also has to confront a gaping dichotomy between illusions and reality. She talks boldly about getting into the Ivy League, but her grades are so bad that her college counselor openly laughs when she broaches the subject. She trashes her parents as stingy spendthrifts – but she doesn’t seem to care that her dad is unemployed and her mom working overtime seven days a week. And although she has a knack for concocting elaborate romantic fantasies – when she first has sex, she says she’s been “deflowered” – she finds her actual boyfriends to be anything but the knights she envisioned. Even if it doesn’t figure as obviously as it does in Last Flag, the Iraq War still provides a telling backdrop for Christine’s realization that her life revolves around a series of fragile delusions.

Image courtesy of A24.

Both Linklater and Gerwig, in other words, deal with characters grappling with grim realities. Yet in her approach to this theme, Gerwig outdoes Linklater in two important ways. First, Last Flag ultimately equivocates on the illusion-reality dilemma it raises, as though Linklater were afraid of appearing too pessimistic. Gerwig, on the other hand, never flinches from her subject matter. Christine is bubbly and vibrant, but she suffers from a disturbing lack of self-awareness – and throughout the film, she’s pushed into embarrassing, humiliating confrontations in which she’s forced to come face to face with her own insufficiencies. These are painful and disheartening moments to watch, but Gerwig never tries to downplay them; in that sense, she shows a respect for her audience’s intelligence that Linklater doesn’t.

From here, Gerwig also structures her narrative in a more meaningful way than Linklater. Instead of relying on smooth, upward-trending character arcs the way Linklater does, her story is defined by its refusal to build up to well-rounded resolutions: scenes of triumph are immediately followed by ones of conflict, and moments of camaraderie are quickly tempered by partings, break-ups, and estrangements. Linklater’s narrative structure is traditional and unidirectional; in a way, its familiarity undermines the pressing, destabilizing existential dilemmas his script confronts. Conversely, Gerwig’s fits-and-starts structure very much speaks to the messy, all-consuming, and Sisyphean nature of Christine’s struggle to come to terms with her ordinariness. So while Sal and Richard’s debates can sometimes come off as merely theoretical (albeit engaging) disputes, you always feel that Christine’s attempts to sort between illusions and reality carry tangible implications – and that’s why Lady Bird eventually proves so moving.

Image courtesy of A24.

Beyond the comparisons with Linklater, it’s also tempting to compare Gerwig’s work to that of Noah Baumbach: another “hipster” director who makes films characterized by sharp dialogue, self-absorbed characters, and unabashedly undirected plots. Yet to say that Gerwig is simply rehashing stuff her beau has already done would be wrong. Baumbach always approaches his characters with a sneer: in his hands, they’re deliberately exaggerated caricatures meant to be ridiculed. With Gerwig, however, her characters are actual human beings. She doesn’t conceal their narcissism and angst, but she treats these flaws with the same affection good friends would use when pointing out each other’s shortcomings. And while Baumbach shies away from real emotions – witness the very conveniently timed cuts in The Meyerowitz Stories – Gerwig eagerly embraces every obstacle Christine encounters. Baumbach is a god looking down on the absurd world he’s engendered; Gerwig is a humanist standing alongside the people she’s depicting, and her perspective carries insights that his simply doesn’t.

I could go on about the many ways Gerwig’s film surpasses similar movies made by other directors. But for brevity’s sake, I’ll restrain myself and simply add that Lady Bird is also very much an actors’ film. Without exception, the supporting cast – Metcalf, Tracy Letts, Lucas Hedges, and others – brings remarkable nuance to what could’ve been a line-up of stock characters. And as for Ronan…ten years ago, she proved her chops in Atonement as a girl whose self-importance outstripped her understanding of the world. Two years ago, moreover, her portrayal of a young woman learning the meaning of independence singlehandedly made Brooklyn one of 2015’s must-see films. And in Lady Bird, she builds on both of these characters to portray someone who alternately exasperates and inspires on her bumpy road to self-discovery. Many things in Lady Bird prove to be illusions, mere figments of Christine’s active imagination. But the brilliance of Ronan’s performance is thankfully anything but.

Image courtesy of A24.

***

Last Flag Flying (2017) Lady Bird (2017)
Starring: Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston,
Laurence Fishburne
Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf,
Tracy Letts, Lucas Hedges,
Stephen McKinley Henderson
Running Time: 124 minutes 93 minutes
MPAA Rating: R R
Produced by: Ginger Sledge, John Sloss Scott Rudin, Eli Bush, Evelyn O’Neil
Written by: Richard Linklater, Darryl Ponicsan Greta Gerwig
Directed by: Richard Linklater Greta Gerwig