We can always count on Richard Linklater to project the sincerity of human conversation onto the big screen for the world to marvel at. His unrested love for his characters is truly moving, and he manages to do it again in his latest film, ‘Last Flag Flying.’ Set in 2003, the film follows three aging Vietnam-era Navy vets as they embark on a sentimental roadtrip across states accompanying one to bury his son after being killed overseas. Supplemented with ideas from Darryl Ponicsan’s novel and Hal Ashby’s 1973 film, ‘The Last Detail,’ Linklater co-wrote the screenplay with Ponicsan to craft a story that brings us the same kind of originality as its spiritual predecessor film.
Larry “Doc” Shepherd (Steve Carell) decides to reunite with his two old marine friends, Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston), and Reverend Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), in hopes they will accompany him to his son’s funeral. It’s not until Larry and Sal have dinner at Richard’s home that he informs them of the reason for his visits. We find out that Larry’s wife passed away just earlier that year due to breast cancer. He also tells them that his son, Larry Jr., joined the Marine Corps a year ago, and was recently informed that his son had been killed in combat during the Iraq War.
I would hate to review a Linklater film and not give deep thought to his characters; they tell you the story! While we are not given a justifiable arc in this film, Carrell, Cranston, and Fishbourne drive these personalities and hold the film solid. The story is as much of a comedy as it is a drama. We see old war buddies yank each other’s leg about aging, old habits, and good times from the past. The film has the background of tragedy tied to its comedic forefront. It offers sensitive attention to Larry’s hardships, as well as lighthearted fun.
Cranston nails it as the foul-mouthed and boozy tough guy who just aches to kick it like he did in his younger years. His performance as Sal is as impeccable as Jack Nicholson’s Billy “Badass” Buddusky in ‘The Last Detail.’ Carell gives a somber energy to Larry that eventually becomes more lively as his pals don’t let the travesties engulf him. Larry is dealt an unfortunate hand in life, but is given a chance to comfortably deal with his loss while finding little joys to ease his pain. Fishbourne is hilarious in his own right and offers up a great performance as a former marine who used to overindulge his time with women as well as booze. His recent years brought him to seek God and it takes a determined Sal to bring ole’ “Mueller the Mauler” back out. The trio of actors command the screen and even in enclosed spaces like cars, hotel rooms, and train stations, they live up to the dialogue of Linklater; an honest and intimate human reflection.
In a group Q&A at the New York Film Festival premiere, Cranston spoke on dealing with grief and how the comedic relief plays in the film. In ‘Last Flag Flying,’ Larry found a way to naturally laugh and relish in the beautiful memory of his fallen son. Truth and honesty are demanded in parts of the film where true heroism was in question. The politics of war are slightly examined in this adult dramedy. It’s a film that explores the real things we fight for and the way a war can define a person’s character. It’s a pleasant little road trip that brings us along with these old friends.
Linklater’s devotion to humanist ideas and thoughtful dialogues in film never rests. It helps sustain ‘Last Flag Flying’ in a way that is both heartfelt and honest. He continues to soar as a big time director with such grace put into his films. He is keen on making time itself a character in his films. Time has the ability to change people and Linklater plays it to the advantage of the loose narrative here. He uses this property to tap into characters’ lives from their memories and bring them forward to tell their stories. ‘Last Flag Flying’ lets us breathe and indulge in the feel-good moments that remind us that everything will be okay.
Director: Richard Linklater
Cast: Bryan Cranston, Laurence Fishburne, Steve Carell