Dir. Hal Ashby. Starring Jack Nicholson, Otis Young, Randy Quaid
The Last Detail, with its frustrated young men, faithfully rendered milieu, and miles of walk-and-talk, screams “Linklater movie.” It’s no wonder that Last Flag Flying borrows from this movie; the guidebook is right here in Hal Ashby’s direction and Robert Towne’s screenplay before either of them lost their heads. All the same I doubt that Richard Linklater could have made something as similarly effective as The Last Detail because of the movie’s well-earned pessimism. I love the dingy, smudged settings that Ashby includes as he always seems to. This is a guy who made Malibu look depressing; the mid-Atlantic (played by Canada) is the right fit for him. The ground is snowy but never picturesque, as all the dead grass peeks through last week’s snowfall. Everyone shivers and huddles into their coats whenever they’re outside. The hotel room and the naval prison are both a similar shade of mustard yellow. The trains are the real stars of this movie, each compartment a shadowy ordeal of tight seats in faded leather with grimy windows to look out of. It’s not a movie about death, or signifying death, but signifying a terminal rot. Meadows (Quaid), a teenager in the Navy with no experience more interesting than shoplifting, manages to get himself into a great deal of trouble because he chooses the wrong thing to steal. He’s caught with his hands in the polio donation box, worth all told about forty bucks, and the sentence that comes down is severe: eight years in naval prison, with a dishonorable discharge thrown into the deal. It turns out that polio is “the old man’s” favorite cause, and Meadows must be made an example of. Even for Buddusky (Nicholson) and Mulhall (Young), a pair of Navy lifers whose cynical approach is half-studied and half-earned, this is a cruel sentence. It’s a sign that something is wrong with the Navy in its bones, the way there’s something worn out and breaking in the trains and hotel rooms and diners.
Upon being assigned the special detail with Mulhall, Buddusky’s brain immediately goes to work. We could get the kid from Virginia to Maine pretty quickly, and they’ve given us a week to do so, he tells Mulhall. There’s a chance we could have ourselves a pretty good week if we play this right. Mulhall agrees, and it seems likely that if it were Mulhall and someone with a little less emotion, that plan might have gone through just so. More than anyone else in the movie, Mulhall appreciates the Navy. He knows that it’s lifted him out of a bad start in life, and he’s basically grateful for the wage and the structure. Buddusky may be more vocally anti-Navy. and vocally anti-everything, than Mulhall, but he’s stuck to it despite having other opportunities. He had a wife once who wanted him to learn to be a TV repairman; he dropped the wife and stuck to the Navy. (There are shades here of Jane Fonda in Coming Home saying that if the Marines wanted you to have a wife, they’d have assigned you one.) Buddusky is the type of person whose personal claustrophobia would make him want to break out of his constraints if he were anything, but in the Navy his anti-authoritarian brand makes his gospel tempting. Mulhall goes along with Buddusky’s plan, and Buddusky ruins it almost immediately. “Guileless” is not a word we’d associate with Randy Quaid now, but in 1973 he has a big dumb face attached to a big dumb body he doesn’t seem totally in control of. On the bus, the three men squish themselves into the back seats, where Mulhall is dumbfounded by the amount of snack food Meadows just happens to have had on him. On the train, Buddusky is affronted by the long sentence awaiting Meadows and tells him that the Navy will knock off two years for good behavior. By the time the trio gets to D.C., Buddusky is giving off a very strong “Can we keep him?” vibe which Mulhall sees right through.
The structure of The Last Detail is partly geographical, as Buddusky’s quick dropoff in Maine turns into a slow crawl up the Eastern Seaboard. One city more or less looks like another without the distinguishing skyscrapers or landmarks, of which Ashby only reveals one: the ice rink at Rockefeller Center. All the same the movie manages to make each city feel individual, giving a particular tone to the episodes. D.C. has a ramshackle carelessness; Camden, where Meadows grew up, is suburban and wistful; Boston is desperate. It’s in Boston that the boys go to a party, run into some Buddhists, pay for sex. There’s a definite feeling of last chances slipping away, which is why the most memorable sound of Boston, and perhaps of all of The Last Detail, is Meadows breathing a chant he’s picked up from the Buddhists in the hopes that it will somehow set him free. In Norfolk and Washington Meadows’ innocence is established. In Camden his background becomes clear; he tells the others that his father is in Seattle and that he might have a half-sister, and when they arrive at Meadows’ house, the only thing home is a mess of bottles on the floor. In Boston, Meadows shows us how young he is. He is having such a good time with Buddusky and Mulhall, by now the men he considers his best friends, that he has almost convinced himself that he isn’t going to jail. He laughs off his sentence, blithely repeating that he expects to get two years taken off for good behavior, treating it like the experience was ten years in the past instead of hours ahead. He is the paragon of the youthful disbelief in consequences. Through Buddusky and Mulhall’s eyes, The Last Detail makes it clear that Meadows’ crime was always his stupidity, his inability to look ten minutes into the future and see what catastrophe is twiddling its thumbs there and waiting for you to drop in.
The other part is a series of firsts for Meadows, more or less spoonfed to him by Buddusky. Meadows learns from Buddusky how to hector a waitstaff into getting his food the way he wants it, a subdued callback to Nicholson’s Five Easy Pieces days. They get drunk together, another first for Meadows. Meadows’ first sexual encounter is with a prostitute Buddusky pays for, ends extremely prematurely, and then the second ends more satisfactorily. Buddusky at this point is badly attached to Meadows, and manages to find similarities between the two of them even when those similarities are maybe a little weird. Meadows chooses a girl (Carol Kane) and Buddusky stage whispers to Mulhall, That’s the one I would have chosen too! Their final day with Meadows is sad in the way last days of anything are sad. Having declined to repeat any activity that he’s already done, because the first time always stands out more, Meadows says, they decide to have a snowy picnic. The one most taciturn and unhappy throughout is Buddusky, whose demeanor is as frosty and sneering as it is in any other part of the movie. When Meadows tries to make one last run for it, Buddusky catches up to the kid and uses his pistol to beat him upside the had before Mulhall can drag him off.
In the end, Buddusky and Mulhall drop Meadows off at Portsmouth, where he is immediately taken away from them; there is no goodbye. It’s easy to imagine another ending to the film in which they help the kid escape, or maybe run off with him, but from the beginning we know neither Buddusky nor Mulhall is going to color outside of the lines any further than they think they can get away with. (Buddusky may look crazy when he starts screaming to a bartender who won’t serve the underage Meadows that he is “the motherfucking shore patrol,” but he knows that the bartender isn’t going to mess with him. It’s all a matter of choosing an audience for him.) They both know too well that it could be them in Portsmouth if they fail to discharge this duty, and as much as they would obviously like to let the kid off there’s never a question that they’ll do what they’re supposed to; after all, this is what makes Buddusky so upset at the “picnic.” Ashby and Towne twist their knife here: you have to do what you have to do to get along, even when doing so roils in your stomach. There’s not much doubt that underneath the tough exteriors and the wild actions, Buddusky and especially Mulhall are decent guys. Their plan to act like they didn’t care about Meadows caved within minutes of meeting him. When they wish at the end of the movie for their assignments to come in, what they’re wishing for as much as anything is a situation where they lack the power to make decisions. Buddusky, technically, was in charge of the detail. He could have made a different decision. How much nicer it feels to be nearer the bottom of the ladder than the top, and where you can safely seethe with injustice without the risk of having to make an unjust decision.