New York Film Fest: 'Last Flag Flying' Divides Critics From Non-Critics

THR's awards columnist gives the low-down from inside Alice Tully Hall and Tavern on the Green on the festival's opening, the biggest night of the year for the New York film community.
Courtesy of Amazon Studios
'Last Flag Flying'

The world premiere of Richard Linklater's Last Flag Flying — a sequel, of sorts, to Hal Ashby's 1973 classic The Last Detail — opened the 55th New York Film Festival on Thursday night. The audience at Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall responded warmly to the dramedy, with laughter throughout and enthusiastic applause at the end. But critics who screened the film earlier in the day — including The Hollywood Reporter's David Rooney — largely slammed it. That made for interesting conversation and debate at the Tavern on the Green post-premiere party, which was filled with the Big Apple's biggest film industry tastemakers and power players.

Last Flag Flying is based on a novel — and was co-adapted for the screen — by Darryl Ponicsan, who also wrote the novel The Last Detail. It centers on the same three Vietnam War-era buddies who were at the center of the earlier film (though in Linklater's movie, they are inexplicably going by different names) and refers to some of the same events they experienced together decades earlier. One has become an alcoholic bartender (Bryan Cranston), another a pious preacher (Laurence Fishburne) and the third a stocking clerk (Steve Carell) who tracks down the other two to help him through the loss of his son, who had followed him into the Navy, was deployed to Iraq and was killed there.

Most critics, in their reviews of the film, compared Last Flag Flying unfavorably to The Last Detail, another road trip movie that felt less episodic, and also to Linklater's past work, which frequently has centered on groups of men in conversation, but usually has felt less on-the-nose. But most in the audience, perhaps not remembering the earlier film and less conversant with Linklater's other films, judged the film — and its attempts at humor — less harshly. Both constituencies, critics and non-critics, seemed to agree that it feels too long (it runs 124 minutes). But whereas critics tended to feel that Cranston's deliberately Nicholson-esque performance was a bit over the top, particularly in comparison to Carell and Fishburne's more understated work, the audience liked his performance the most, giving it the loudest ovation of all when end credits rolled. And the audience was also more moved by the story (which ends powerfully).

Amazon, which somehow snagged all three of the marquee slots at this year's festival —Todd Haynes' Wonderstruck will screen on Centerpiece Night and Woody Allen's Wonder Wheel will screen on Closing Night — has its work cut out for it with Last Flag Flying. It's hard to imagine how they'll market a film about such sad subject matter to moviegoers and streamers, let alone Academy members. But if they can get actors to check it out, they may find their most welcoming audience yet, since few performers are as respected by their peers as the trio at the center of this pic. It seems to me that, in the best-case-scenario, the film could join a long list of unexpected best ensemble SAG Award nominees — e.g. Bobby, 3:10 to Yuma, Nine, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, August: Osage County, The Butler and Trumbo, starring one Bryan Cranston.

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