The Last Detail
Beyond the call of duty

by John and Judith Hess

from Jump Cut, no. 2, 1974, pp. 11-12
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1974, 2004

THE LAST DETAIL describes five days in the lives of three Navy men. Two lifers, Buddusky (Jack Nicholson) and Mulhall (Otis Young), escort a young seaman, Meadows (Randy Quaid), from Norfolk to Portsmouth Naval Prison, where he is to be jailed for eight years because he attempted to steal $40 from a charity box. Meadows’ crime and the inordinate punishment are right out of CATCH 22; he tried to lift the money from the Commander’s wife’s favorite do-gooder project and got eight years and a dishonorable discharge. Buddusky and Mulhall are astounded when they hear about it. “Who did he kill?” Buddusky wants to know.

On the surface THE LAST DETAIL seems to be a very realistic movie because it in some ways accurately portrays military life and the people who live it. It clearly shows the isolation of these men who have left their working class origins to join the Navy, thus unwittingly becoming tools of the ruling class. As the film opens we hear military music and see a Navy band. A seaman emerges from behind the passing band, walks to the transient barracks, searches for and finds Petty Officer Buddusky asleep, alone in a room, obviously sleeping off last night’s binge. Buddusky protests against having his transient status interrupted and reacts violently against the order to appear before the Chief Master at Arms. The same scene repeats itself when the messenger finds Petty Officer Mulhall ironing his clothes. He too resists being drawn out of the anonymity of the transient status into some shit detail. But in the next scene both Petty Officers arrive, sullen but subdued, to receive their orders.

At the end of the film, after the three men, Buddusky, Mulhall, and their prisoner Meadows have established a friendship, all three again become isolated figures. Meadows is jerked out of their midst as soon as they enter the prison. Visibly shaken by this, Buddusky and Mulhall can only watch helplessly as Meadows is dragged up the metal stairs to eight years of a hell he well might not survive. Then the two Petty Officers are chewed out by a young Marine Lieutenant. Their years of experience, years of protecting themselves from the Boss, from the Man, serve them well. They demand to see the Commanding Officer (who will most likely be a Naval officer). The Marine, his bluff called, relents and lets them go. In the final long tracking shot Buddusky and Mulhall march in step to “Anchors Aweigh.” They will go their separate ways: Badass to New York and Mule to Baltimore. Buddusky’s last words are “see you in Norfolk.” Somehow we know that the two men probably won't see each other again.

The isolation of these rootless men is accurately portrayed, as is their overriding concern for job security. Even though Buddusky leads them to the brink of calamity by, for example, betting their travel money on a dart game in a bar or by starting a fight with Marines in the men’s room of a train station, he and Mulhall both believe that the Navy was the best thing that ever happened to them. “I guess we're just two lifers,” Buddusky says to Mule in the whorehouse. The backgrounds of Mulhall, the southern small town Black who still supports his mother, Buddusky, the Polish-American whose former wife wanted him him to be a TV repairman, and even Meadows, the poor soul kleptomaniac from Camden, are all suggested by their brief visit to the deteriorating neighborhood in Camden to see Meadows’ alcoholic mother. Despite all the problems and hassles, the Navy is the best life all three of these uneducated men can have. Mule, most aware, as a Black, of the precariousness of his life in the Man’s world, is most concerned with security and constantly opposes Buddusky’s wildness, his desire to maintain his reputation as a Badass.

If THE LAST DETAIL were simply an accurate description of the lives of uprooted working class men in the Navy, we would welcome it as a realistic portrait of a segment of American life. Unfortunately there is more to the movie than that. Although this film deals with working class characters and purports to give a realistic portrayal of their lives, the presentation of the three leading characters reveals the film’s essentially middle class bias. These three men are presented as limited, uneducated, lazy, prone to violence, and, worst of all (from the middle class perspective), disrespectful of private property. In other words, they exhibit all the negative qualities which the middle class commonly assigns to the working class. Mule, Badass, and Meadows are presented as centers of barely repressed anarchy; they are held in check only by the institution which feeds and clothes them and manages their lives. They seem to be volatile, unruly men who, without the restraints of military control, don't know how to behave.

Buddusky starts a brawl in the men’s room, all three of them run through the station knocking people out of the way, Badass runs out in front of a cab to stop.it for them, they stand around drinking in a parking lot, they practically demolish a hotel room. The near pathological nature of Buddusky’s violence is shown in various scenes and most forcefully in the hotel room where he tries to goad Meadows and then Mule into a fight and ends up smashing a lamp shade and punching the wall several times. The viciousness of his attack on Meadows when the latter tries to escape is iceing on the cake. Mulhall, while not violent himself, is only too willing to go along with Buddusky. He tries throughout to control Buddusky, but is not really up to it.

This film is not a documentary; it is a highly selective presentation of a few episodes in the lives of three fictional characters. Director Hal Ashby grossly manipulates his audience under the guise of presenting it with the much vaunted slice of life. Military lifers are seldom “centers of barely repressed anarchy.” They are usually quietly intent on surviving, i.e., covering their asses and hoping for the next stripe. So, if Ashby’s intent is not to accurately describe military life, what then is his intent?

Let us examine the story to see what it communicates to us. Once freed from the constraints of the military structure, the two shore patrolmen and their prisoner develop a personal relationship which causes the two shore patrolmen to neglect their assignment. In fact, they disregard regulations they are very well aware of and provide their prison, er numerous opportunities to escape. The implications of this plot to a middle class audience are plain: solidarity among members of the working class is to be feared because the dissolution of existing structures and discipline will result. The fact that Meadows is unjustly sentenced does not undercut this implication. At its core, the only alternatives the movie posits (and the same could be said of most bourgeois cinema—see Kracauer on early German cinema) are an affirmation of the existing social strucutres, i.e., the status quo, however sour they have become, or the acceptance of a state of anarchy. Both the people who contributed to the making of the film and the vast majority of the people who will watch it share the same unconsciously held presuppositions about society. The film’s effect is to exacerbate class conflict by showing bourgeois society the face of what it most fears: what the working class might do without the institutional restraints which capitalism places on their lives.

The latent reactionary content of THE LAST DETAIL is masked by the more obvious and entertaining humorous opposition between anarchic Jack Nicholson (the dynamic and popular actor) and institutions which have become corrupt and, ultimately, senseless. The world of civilians and officers becomes the butt of Nicholson’s rage. His humorous anarchy is illustrated by his battles with any and all centers of power. His verbal tirades against officers, Marines, and shit details enthrall audiences who know the same kind of frustration in their everyday lives. When Nicholson tries to buy Meadows his first beer in Washington, a bartender refuses to serve him because he is under age. The bartender also insults Mule who viciously defends himself by telling the bartender what he can do with his beer. Nicholson again demands that Meadows be served. But when the bartender reaches under the bar for a weapon, Nicholson goes berzerk, viciously taunts the man, and finally threatens him with his gun. If we were to imagine ourselves sitting on a nearby bar stool having a quiet afternoon beer, the gravity and intensity of the encounter would be very frightening. Yet in the movie theater we laugh because Jack Nicholson has responded to frustration in the creative and forceful ways we would all like to emulate. And he gets away with it.

The violence of frustration which mirrors our own sense of frustration and powerlessness has become a major theme in the American cinema. When Steve McQueen slowly walks around a police car blowing it to bits with a shot gun (THE GETAWAY), we cheer because it helps exorcise our own sense of frustration. When Elliot Gould jumps up on the table and yells at the pompous professors who are examining him (GETTING STRAIGHT), we cheer again. The car chase through congested urban streets (another standard feature of recent cinema) relieves our sense of frustration and claustrophobia in over-crowded cities and suburbs.

In THE LAST DETAIL, as in these other movies too, it is always made perfectly clear that Nicholson, like Chaplin in his films, momentarily thwarts, but never defeats, the all-powerful institutions. Thus the film has its proverbial cake and eats it too. It revels in Nicholson’s outraged attacks on institutions without suggesting that the dissolution of these institutions would be a good thing. Such a suggestion, after all, would be untenable in a Hollywood film and unacceptable to most American audiences. Thus, while the movie offers momentary relief from frustration, the audience is left with the overriding impression that life is a meaningless concatenation of unrelated activities, that any “slice of life” would inevitably reveal this meaninglessness.

The film’s form also provides this message. Each separate activity is cut short or fragmented. The film is divided into short sequences which exclude any really significant aspects of experience. For example, we do not see Meadows have a successful sexual experience; only the most ludicrous and anticlimactic episodes are included. Consequences are also ignored. When the three men get drunk and sit around the hotel room, we don't see Meadows get sick. We only learn that he did vomit and that he will again. The film is divided into small bits and pieces which alone are meaningless and don't add up to anything. Because most of the film is composed of scenes of waiting, standing around, and watching, we are left with a sense of the aimlessness of the characters’ lives.

While the meaninglessness of their lives is clearly the result of their dependence on an alienating job for their security and comfort, the film makers have generalized the film in order to make it stand for life in general. Thus the real causes of isolation, frustration, alienation, and meaninglessness in the lives of these men remain unexplored. The emptiness stays at the level of an existential or psychological problem and never becomes, in terms of the movie, what it is: a social problem.

Only once does the film touch political and social reality. toward the end of the sailors’ stay in New York, they are picked up by four very ridiculous youngish liberals who take them to a plush apartment. Two of these people question Mulhall about the treatment he and other Blacks are receiving in the Navy and about his attitudes toward the Navy and toward Nixon. Mulhall rejects these questions by justly putting down these silly people who clearly do not understand him, and his motives for joining and staying in the Navy. By carefully selecting his types and directing this scene, Ashby has forced us to agree that these are tiresome questions.

But only in this film, which strictly avoids all contact with the world outside its aesthetic frontiers, could these questions be tiresome. These are, from a larger perspective, the most important questions asked in the whole film. THE LAST DETAIL is critical of Navy life, but its criticisms are purposely unspecific and apply to modern life in general. The Navy in this film functions as a microcosm or a symbol of life in general. By refusing to deal with specific issues (and even denigrating those which are raised), Hal Ashby and his associates think they have freed themselves from any social responsibility. But every human act has political implications which cannot be denied. By ignoring the economic and social origins of contemporary alienation and frustration, these film makers have chosen to support the existing irstitutions they appear to criticize.