Since there have been wars, there have been old soldiers, gathering years later to kick around their shared glory days of combat as only they can. It’s a popular trope for narrative works, easily providing drama, pathos, nostalgia, comedy and, often, an historical critique. Richard Linklater’s new film inhabits this niche and takes stock of two wars: the ongoing Iraq war (the story is set in 2003) and the Vietnam war. (The film is offered as sort of a sequel/re-work of Hal Ashby’s The Last Detail, from 1973.)
Sal (Bryan Cranston) runs a bar in Norfolk, Va., and his old Vietnam buddy Doc (Steve Carell) surprises him there one night. They drive to Richmond, where they collect Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), the third musketeer and now a minister. But the reunion has a somber purpose: Doc’s son has been killed in Iraq, and he’d like his two old war pals to help with the burial. So, they set off for Delaware, and then on up the East Coast to Doc’s home in Portsmouth, N.H. (Some parts of the film were shot in Pittsburgh — you’ll recognize Bloomfield and the Amtrak station.)
What unfolds is a buddy road movie, doled out in set pieces (Dover Air Force base, a night in New York City, a train ride). It mixes bawdy humor with gut-wrenching grief, guilt with shamelessness, and sentimentality with cynicism. The guys skirt the past, pondering their war, this war, all wars, as well as what it means to be a good soldier, hero or patriot. At times, this jumble works well; in other places, the seams show, or the emotional moments fail to land.
There’s pleasure in watching these performers, even if they sometimes seem to be acting in different movies; Cranston is playing to the balcony, with non-stop motor-mouthing and broad gestures, while Fishburne does his patented quiet gravitas. Carell has wandered in from an indie film about some inscrutable fellow who barely talks, but this may be a choice designed to represent Doc’s trauma. (Fact: The military contains all sorts.)
There are oblique references to things that went wrong for the trio in Vietnam — Doc spent time in the brig, and Mueller refers to it as “a dark period in my life.” It’s never explained, and, one guesses, is still unresolved. There is closure here, but it’s from moving forward, with one’s baggage packed neatly, rather than backward.