Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Richard Linklater
Stars: Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston, Laurence Fishburne, J Quinton Johnson, Yul Vazquez, Deanna Reed-Foster, Graham Wolfe, Cicely Tyson.
The latest film from director Richard Linklater (the Oscar winning Boyhood, the Before trilogy, etc) is a road movie that offers up a meditation on the bonds of male friendship, patriotism and the nature of war. This is his most political and cynical movie to date and it is deeply critical of the US military policies. The film draws powerful parallels between the quagmire of Vietnam and the war against terror in Iraq thirty years later and highlights the universal experience of fighting an unpopular war. It serves up a potent anti-war message about the futility of it all and the unnecessary and tragic waste of young lives for an ideological cause and lies fed to the public by the governments of the day.
Last Flag Flying is set in 2003. The US is entrenched in the war in Iraq and Saddam Hussein has been captured. But back home in the small town of Portsmouth in New Hampshire, soft spoken family man Larry “Doc” Shepherd (Steve Carell) learns that his Marine son has been killed in action in Iraq. He sets out to Arlington to claim the body and bury him. Along the way he reconnects with two former friends from his own days as a soldier in Vietnam thirty-years earlier to ask them to accompany him on this emotionally wrought journey.
The brash, extroverted, wise-cracking and foul-mouthed Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston) is a former hell raiser and heavy drinker who now runs a dive bar, while Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne) has become a respected man of the cloth who preaches at his local church. But when Doc learns the truth of his son’s death he decides to return the body to his hometown and bury him in the local cemetery, against the advice of stuffy and humourless Marine Colonel Willetts (Yul Vazquez). Willetts eventually relents, and sends Charlie Washington (J Quinton Johnson, from Everybody Wants Some, etc), a comrade and friend of Larry’s son, to accompany them. This sets in motion a journey in which the three former comrades-in-arms reconnect and bond and confront some personal demons and a guilty secret.
The journey is filled with some laughs and emotional moments as the three men reconnect and reveal personal details about themselves. The film has a relaxed pace, and there are also some shaggy dog detours, such as when they buy mobile phones during a stop-over in New York and make an emotionally-charged visit to the mother of a former comrade who died in Vietnam.
Last Flag Flying is based on the 2005 novel written by Darryl Ponicsan, and it shares a few thematic similarities with his best-known work in 1973’s The Last Detail which was filmed by Hal Ashby and starred Jack Nicholson. This sort of belated companion piece delivers its stinging anti-war criticism without resorting to flashbacks. This is a poignant, angry, funny, sombre and ultimately uplifting film with a real heart and insight. But this is distinctly a Linklater film with its deft characterisation and the wonderful crackling dialogue and interaction that drives the narrative.
The three central protagonists are flawed and very human, and they are brought to life with fantastic performances from the three stars who inhabit their characters. Carell, Cranston and Fishburne are the glue that hold the film together. Carell delivers a nicely nuanced and moving dramatic performance as the meek and mild-mannered but grieving Larry who keeps his emotions in check for the most part. But one can sense the powerful anger beneath the surface as he grows disillusioned about the military and tries to make sense of his son’s death. This is a complex performance that gives Carell an opportunity to demonstrate a wide range and ranks as one of his best screen performances. He uses silence and his body language effectively.
Cranston is a force of nature here as the outspoken and foul-mouthed Sal who speaks his mind, and while he initially seems unlikeable he finds some unexpected compassion and empathy. He also provides much of the bawdy humour. And Fishburne normally has a strong and commanding physical presence, but he reins in his usual mannerisms for a more subtle and reserved turn as the former hell-raiser who has found a kind of peace through religion. But he still gives us hints of his youthful rebellious personality. The three bounce off each other superbly and develop a wonderful and believable rapport. And Johnson holds his own against the three veterans with a nicely nuanced performance of his own.
Linklater’s regular cinematographer Shane F Kelly captures some gritty and bleak visions of run down neighbourhoods that give the film a melancholy and at times cold feel and evokes the dying small towns of America.
Last Flag Flying may not be Linklater’s best film, but he certainly makes this a journey worth taking.