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The Last Detail: A (Blue) Whale of a Time

HOME’s Tom Hughes looks at Jack Nicholson’s turn in Hal Ashby’s The Last Detail, screening as part of our Road Movies season…

Three low-ranking US Navy officers make a voyage overland from Virginia to Maine that sees them boozing, brawling, cussing and whoring their way through the major cities of the eastern United States… Such a premise may cause some cinemagoers to give this film a wide berth. Is it a flashy, gung-ho battleship of a movie, 80s-style, all high-fives and cocky one-upmanship? Or perhaps a WW2-style shore leave comedy, a light vessel carrying a cargo of unfunny sex gags, unfit for the testing waters of modern sexual politics?

On the contrary—this is a film of great political and emotional firepower, but that conceals its purpose below the surface, lurking with the subtlety of a high-tech nuclear submarine… No, too aggressive: it’s a tender story, big-hearted and melancholy—a blue whale? –For the purpose of this journey is to escort a teenage sailor (Quaid) to a brutal navy prison, where he’s condemned to serve eight years for an act of petty theft. His guards, two navy ‘lifers’ (Young and Nicholson) decide to show him a good time en route, and the trio’s revelry is thus lent a sort of dignity and purpose. More than just getting him drunk, and (in sequences tastefully handled for 1973) trying to get him laid, they also offer their solidarity and friendship.

But the ineluctable reality of their journey’s objective also taints their merrymaking with a finitude like the creeping dread of death. Resolute in the face of this is ‘Badass’ Buddusky, one of Nicholson’s greatest roles, who with Robert Towne’s dialogue seems he could burst through the screen at any moment and buy you a beer. But he’s also a deeply frustrated and exploited character. Here, as with Nicholson’s two other road movies from this decade, Five Easy Pieces (1970) and The Passenger (1975), he plays a man whose worldly freedom only serves to underline his existential imprisonment.

Yet another Nicholson road movie, Easy Rider (1969), and other road movies in that mould (like Vanishing Point (1971), which screens at HOME on 16th August,) see their counter-cultural heroes escape conformity and duty into absolute freedom. The journey embarked upon in The Last Detail is the diametric opposite of that. The 1970s counter-culture does make an appearance, but when the lifers encounter it they are too institutionalised to understand what they’re seeing.

This film diverges from Hollywood tradition formally; in terms of its editing and visual style, with jump-cuts and use of natural light and locations and generally plotless documentary style it has more in common with the French New Wave than its compatriots. It avoids neat resolution and artifice and feels accidental and authentic.

This authenticity is its great strength. Depicting navy officers as jaded, swearing, frustrated human beings is a political act in itself. With a record 65 uses of the word ‘fuck’, the film was initially refused a release. Columbia’s mishandling might be why it remains so woefully underappreciated, but (partly thanks to Peter Biskind’s book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls) it has now a strong cult following, and a Richard Linklater-directed sequel, The Last Flag Flying, is due to hit screens this winter.

Word by Tom Hughes.

The Last Detail screens screened as part of our Road Movies season. 

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