War typically involves old men sending young men to die in a foreign land for reasons that aren’t exactly clear for those on the ground. Even if they return home intact, there are those unseen scars that can linger for decades. There’s also a bond that is forged between those that serve which becomes so strong that time cannot weaken it. All of these aspects of military service and more are covered in the new film from Richard Linklater, Last Flag Flying. Based upon the novel by Darryl Ponicsan, which was a sequel to his novel The Last Detail that was made into a classic 1973 film from Hal Ashby, Last Flag Flying isn’t a sequel to The Last Detail, but another quiet triumph from Richard Linklater, blending a contemplative examinations of the nature of military service with ample amounts of humor and a somber tone that amplifies the heartbreaking drama at the center of the film. Once again, Linklater has made a film with characters who are a joy to hang out with even as they traverse emotionally rocky terrain ensuring that Last Flag Flying earns a spot as one of the year’s best films.
In 2003, Larry “Doc” Shepherd (Steve Carell) walks into a dingy old bar run and orders a beer from Sal (Bryan Cranston), the bartender and owner of the scarcely populated dive. Sal doesn’t recognize Doc at first, but it doesn’t take long for Sal to remember their time together in Vietnam. After a night of drinking, Sal and Doc take a brief road trip to a congregation run by the Reverend Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), the two old friends shocked that their old rowdy friend has settled down into a life of service the Lord. It’s there that Doc reveals his intentions for this impromptu reunion. His son has just recently died in Iraq and he’d like his old friends to accompany him to the funeral.
When the trio of vets arrive at the military base to pick up the body of Doc’s son, Sal and Richard get word from Washington (J. Quinton Johnson), a young Marine that was with Doc’s son, that the official story of what happened in Iraq was a lie, twisting the facts in a vain attempt to make the father feel better about his son’s tragic death. This sets forth a crisis on confidence with Doc who now wants to take his son to his hometown for burial, leading to a number of tense confrontations with Colonel Willits (Yul Vazquez). Now this trio of former soldiers are joined by Washington and the casket of Doc’s son as they transport the body for a funeral at home, along the way bickering and laughing at their past exploits.
While tackling the inherently political topic of the Iraq War and drawing heavily upon the parallels to Vietnam, Linklater and Ponicsan’s screenplay doesn’t dwell on the politics of either the era. Instead, Last Flag Flying focuses on its characters and how the political decisions of others have shaped their lives. The film takes a contemplative tone in its examination of the two wars that have left their mark on these characters and the nation as a whole. And yet that contemplative nature of Last Flag Flying never interferes in the easygoing character dynamics that make the film often hilarious and enjoyable. Linklater and Ponicsan have constructed a tonal masterwork as the film will take the audience through laughter and tears in equal measure, imploring the audience to question the morality of war without hammering a political message to death.
The leading trio of actors each deliver phenomenal performances as these former military men facing their own past the prospects of their futures. Bryan Cranston really brings the gusto as Sal. He’s larger than life and abrasive, often drinking to excess and confronting people on uncomfortable topics regardless of tact. It’s probably Cranston’s best performance since the conclusion of Breaking Bad, letting the actor bring ample comedic oomph with a tragic loneliness simmering under the brash surface. Laurence Fishburne brings a dignity to Richard Mueller, a character who has put his wild party days behind him as he took of his Marine Corps uniform in favor a new uniform in service of Jesus. As the film progresses, Fishburne sheds the layers of the protective exterior that Mueller dons to separate his former self with his current self. Steve Carell, an actor capable of big comedic performances, delivers something so quiet and moving, unlike anything he’s ever done before. He’s a character in the throes of grief and yet is able to find those moments to laugh despite the pain swelling in his heart.
Last Flag Flying is a special movie, one that never sacrifices the joys of hanging out with its characters at the expense of its moral and philosophical underpinnings. This movie is strong in its anti-war sentiment but that never comes from a place that conflates those who serve with the political decisions of those in power. And yet, through all the tears and the tragedy that serves as the inciting act of the film, Linklater is able to bring an easygoing attitude that makes its enjoyable to hang out with these characters through good times and bad. At times, Last Flag Flying is as enjoyable as Everybody Wants Some!! and at other times its heart-wrenching portrait of grief, duty, and the bonds of brotherhood forged by those in uniform. More importantly, Last Flag Flying doesn’t pander either side of the political aisle as it’s much more concerned with the human story at its heart, one that transcends simple left/right political posturing that often finds its way into films dealing with the military. Linklater and Ponicsan have much more on their mind and it makes Last Flag Flying something truly unique and immensely moving.
Last Flag Flying
With a tone that is often heartbreaking, hilarious, and contemplative, Richard Linklater’s Last Flag Flying boasts three stellar lead performances in a powerful portrait of grief in the wake of war.