The Last Detail
Like most of director Hal Ashby’s efforts – but unlike most of screenwriter Robert Towne’s – this is a film in slight terms of story and a subtle in its emotions, but it is nevertheless a remarkably enjoyable and effecting one at that. The premise is simple; two navy grunts are randomly assigned Chaser detail, which entails transferring a fellow officer across the country to a Military prison.
Though rather than taking the concept along the Good Men route of military tribunals and the legal drama inherent within, Detail wanders a looser, more humorous path and as such is more of a predecessor to the contemporary road-trip comedies or wandering friendship movies like Midnight Cowboy. Because this time their ward is an innocent eighteen year old who has been drastically sentenced – for political reasons – to an eight year stint for a relatively minor misdemeanor and so they decide to take their time and give him some memorable experiences along the way, some memories that he can take in with him.
Though the cast is very small –the other roles are basically all either cameos or extras – but the three mains are all fantastic: Randy Quaid is tragically naive and Nicholson gives what I consider one of his best performances of all time; it’s one of his original out-there roles and as so he nails the balance between outrageousness and humanity, it’s the kind of performance that he seems to have been trying to replicate for all these years. And the performances are very important because it’s the characters that both drive and support the entire movie, so it is integral that we enjoy spending time with them.
Thankfully we do, very much so. In fact I would say that this is almost an enjoyable a voyage as there is out there, though that’s not to say that the film itself doesn’t also have something to say. Being made, as it was, just after America’s loss in Vietnam the films focus on military men imbues it with some added resonance and although the film never shies away from showing how sailors were treated back then it also never forces us to see it. While this may not sound like much it is rather a miracle to see a movie about war and the armed forces that doesn’t force an opinion or obtain a strong bias; for every example of brutalism and bungled bureaucracy there is an equally moving moment of brotherhood and respect. Our armies are made up of men and so they are all just as flawed as mankind; no more, no less.
The riotous comedy and picaresque antics are also offset by a great sense of poignancy, offset but never undercut. After all this is the story of a young man’s life effectively being ended over some politicking and it never forgets that fact, but like the sailors it knows that sometimes you have to push the facts aside and have a good time, though the ramifications will hit harder the next day. The ending, while never melodramatic, is rather heartbreaking; a sudden, subtle jolt of injustice that makes you mad though you are but powerless.
So overall it is a film that has everything you could want in a film, my only criticism is that it could maybe have used more of everything, because it stands as an enjoyable enough trip but never one that blows you away