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Sonoma writer Darryl Ponicsan retraces journey with ‘Last Flag Flying’

Three soldiers on a road trip, encountering a picaresque series of events in an America riven by patriotism and doubt in equal measure, during a war that calls into question the very meaning of loyalty to country.

If that sounds something like the plot of “The Last Detail,” the classic Vietnam-era film starring Jack Nicholson, it is. It’s also the plot of “Last Flag Flying,” a new release hitting local theaters next week with a cast that includes Bryan Cranston, Steve Carell and Laurence Fishburne.

Whether or not lightning strikes twice remains to be seen – Nicholson was nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal as Billy “Bad-Ass” Buddusky in the 1973 movie, as was supporting actor Randy Quaid and screenwriter Robert Towne.

But “Last Flag Flying” is not just a knock-off – the book it’s based upon comes from the pen of the same author, Sonoma resident Darryl Ponicsan. Ponicsan also had a hand in the screenplay of this year’s movie, co-written with its director, Richard Linklater. And Ponicsan will be the first to tell you that, although his 2003 book was indeed a sequel, this year’s movie is something more.

“It was not possible to bring together the original cast for a sequel movie, and we didn’t want to recast. Instead, Rick Linklater and I retooled the story by making them Marine vets instead of Navy vets and by giving them a different shared background and defining event,” he told the Index-Tribune in an email. “That left us free to cast whoever we wanted.”

That casting was, as Ponicsan says, inspired. Steve Carell in particular brings an earnest pathos to his character of Shepard, loosely the role of Meadows played by Quaid in 1973 – then a young, perhaps not-quite-all-there soldier being escorted to the brig for lifting $20 from a charity donation bucket. It’s not the $20, but the fact that the charity was the commanding officer’s wife’s charity that put Meadows in stir – though the young Marine does seem to have “light fingers” when it comes to shopping.

Carell’s character is more grounded than Quaid’s, but there’s still the outside chance that he’s missing a few cogs in his wheelhouse. He’s long since out of the brig, but seeks out the very two men who took him to prison 30 years earlier to assist him with a new, even sadder mission: retrieving his dead son’s body from military custody, and burying him at Arlington.

Fishburne plays (loosely) the role that Otis Young had in “Last Detail,” named Mulhall then, Meadows now. While the earlier character was rowdy and eager for trouble, Fishburne’s Meadows has reformed: he’s the pastor at a black church in Pennsylvania, and only a reluctant party to the shenanigans that the older trio get up to.

Of course it’s Cranston who is likely to get the most attention, if for no other reason than the larger-than-life shoes he’s asked to fill. Nicholson was in full Jack mode for “The Last Detail,” cocky and brash and profane (“I am the freakin’ Shore Patrol!”), and it’s a lot to ask Cranston to inhabit the same role. In fact the name changes become most suspect here: Sal Nealon is a pale substitute for Bad-Ass Buddusky, and truth be told, Bryan ain’t Jack.

Like its predecessor, “Last Flag Flying” takes a jaundiced view of blind patriotism, and the fact that the new movie is set in the years following 9-11 – when America was pimping itself up for an endless war on terrorism (Shepard’s son is killed in Iraq, under less-than-heroic circumstances) – echoes the skepticism that “The Last Detail” showed toward Vietnam.

This is in itself something of the point: “I am gratified at this stage of my life and career to have brought this story full circle, through two wars decades apart, both of which have proven to be mistakes riddled with lies,” Ponicsan said.

For Ponicsan, “The Last Detail” was his first novel, and its success foreshadowed his subsequent career both as a novelist and a screenwriter. His novel “Cinderella Liberty” was also a successful film in the 1970s, as was “Taps,” for which he received screenwriting credit – both set in the military world. (Ponicsan joined the Navy after graduate school.)

Among his other screenwriting credits are “The Boost” about cocaine use, and “Vision Quest,” about a high school wrestler. “I believe I am the oldest screenwriter to have a movie out this year,” said the 79-year-old Ponicsan, aside perhaps from Woody Allen, who is 81.

“Last Flag Flying” was not his last book – in fact he’s written several mysteries since, under the pen name Anne Argula. He works, when he can, in his Sonoma studio, though has recently succeeded in keeping a low local profile after getting a bit too much exposure for his personal taste during the leaf-blower controversy (he and his wife Cee Cee were frequent advocates for a ban on the gas-powered blowers, which eventually succeeded).

But the big buzz surrounding “Last Flag Flying” – which was premiered at the Mill Valley Film Festival in October, and opened in Los Angeles and New York and Austin a week or so later – threatens to put the local writer back in the limelight.

But even if it gleans awards and boffo box-office, Ponicsan’s not likely to get all puffed up about it. “As for Oscar buzz, it’s just buzz. And like my tinnitus I do my best to ignore it.”

Email Christian at christian.kallen@sonomanews.com.