Months ago I reviewed the Bill Murray service comedy Stripes, a fun loving ready made for 80s propaganda piece for the Reagan era. Don't get me wrong, Stripes is a fun movie with great gags, despite the old fashioned set up of misfits finding their way in the army.
Therein lies a decisive difference between the 70s and 80s, reality gave way to fantasy. As evidence, compare The Last Detail to Stripes.
The Last Detail written by Robert Towne and directed by Hal Ashby stars Jack Nicholson as career navy man "Bad Ass" Buddusky who is ordered to transfer a young sailor named Meadows (Randy Quaid) to a naval prison for a petty theft he committed. Along with fellow African-American sailor Mulansky (Otis Taylor), they show Meadows a "lust for life" few days where they teach him how to be a man. Unlike the typical formulaic films of this type, The Last Detail revels in a grim sense of fate.
Nicholson's performance remains one of his best ever. In One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest he took the alienated tough guy persona further. In The Last Detail he displayed a subtle vulnerability. Behind all his bravado lies a building frustration with himself and society. By the end even the "Bad Ass" must submit to the system.
The film's also a snapshot of America in the early 1970s. The counterculture's in full swing and public faith in the military at its lowest ebb. In many ways the servicemen in the story are the new American outsiders, often misunderstood and relegated to the fringes. Nicholson, the ultimate individualist in America cinema, turns a Navy lifer into something of an iconoclast.
Supporting performances are memorable as well. Otis Taylor's exudes toughness, stoicism, and a quiet compassion as Buddusky's fellow lifer. Quaid displayed a painful innocence, a melancholy symbol of many young men caught up in a complicated system. Appearances from Carol Kane, Gilda Radner, Michael Moriarty, and Clifton James are all memorable. Johnny Mandel's faux patriotic music adds a perfect touch.
For a triple feature on the Post-Vietnam military one could well start off with The Last Detail, Stripes, and American Sniper. Here we have a tragicomedy, a straight up comedy, and a straight up drama. Today war movies tend to emphasize the super soldier, the special forces who perform tasks beyond the abilities of the citizen soldier. The technocratic war movies of the 21st century are narrow minded crowd pleasers.
The Last Detail's is all about existentialism and combating dread with exuberance and false hope. Not exactly a winning sales pitch for a script these days, but a combustible combination with Nicholson and company.