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‘Last Flag Flying’ Review: Somber, Worthwhile, Lacking Linklater’s Signature Ease

Reunited decades after the Vietnam War, three old friends find themselves on the road with a heartbreaking mission and dark secret.
By  · Published on September 28th, 2017

Reunited decades after the Vietnam War, three old friends find themselves on the road with a heartbreaking mission and dark secret.

A true master of the art of on-screen conversation, writer-director Richard Linklater has coined a signature looseness in his style with the Before Trilogy, seizing the relaxed rhythms of his characters as they walk, talk and open up to one another. With films like Dazed and Confused and Everybody Wants Some!!, he coated customary cinematic male bonding with a dash of nostalgia and irresistible charm. The filmmaker finds himself in familiar territory with the somber, somewhat timid Last Flag Flying, in which he follows three Vietnam War veterans on a road trip three decades after their service to their country. Co-written by Linklater and Darryl Ponicsan (who also authored the source novel), Last Flag Flying is a film about reckoning with the past; about certain old wounds, time is incapable of healing. While it unfortunately sorely lacks the habitual nonchalant mood we came to expect from a Linklater film—this one feels a tad stiff and calculated to a fault— Last Flag Flying still wins one over by design despite its hard shell: it’s impossible to resist the outcome when Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston, and Laurence Fishburne drink, philosophically reminisce about life and well, talk dirty in a solemn package.

The film opens with the mild-mannered Larry “Doc” Shepherd (Carell, unusually subdued) paying an unannounced visit to the tackless, alcoholic Sal Nealon (a foulmouthed Cranston in the film’s showiest comic relief part) at his Virginia bar, three decades after their camaraderie and side-by-side battle in the Vietnam War. Sal is behind the bar, heard loudly complaining about the justice system in America, or lack thereof; about how white-collar crime never receives its due from the authorities until Doc interrupts his routine. The year is 2003, and (as Doc mentions one too many times), it is possible to locate any old friend “on the worldwide web.” After an all-night drinking session, the duo finds their third from the olden days; the once wild-partying Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne, delivering a ticking bomb of an escalating performance) who is now a happily married, conservative pastor, living a wholesome, alcohol-free life in the suburbs. Soon enough Doc, who’s recently lost his wife to cancer, reveals his true intentions behind his will to reunite with his two comrades years later. His young Marine son has been killed in the Iraq War and he needs two of his former co-fighters to accompany him to his burial at Arlington. But their plans change once they meet the young Marine’s best friend Charlie (J. Quinton Johnson), who knows the grim details of Doc’s young son’s passing. With a change of plans, the quartet (now joined by Charlie) heads to New Hampshire with the coffin, after Doc decides to bury his son in their family cemetery despite many objections from Charlie’s superior (Yul Vazquez).

We quickly realize our initial introduction to Sal, during which he critiques his country’s unjust ways, was just scratching the surface of the commentary about to come. Throughout their trip, the group of old friends similarly takes down American systems and institutions, and senseless wars caused by deeply rooted lies in the ‘weapons of mass destruction.’ “I want us to be able to trust our leaders,” one of them asserts. “But what happens when you catch your government lying to you,” another wonders. Along the way, racial dynamics in America (sometimes, from a blatantly and painfully white perspective) get dismantled. Plenty of drinks get consumed and profanity is embraced, even by the Pastor who briefly assumes his younger persona. Though a long-running and tired cell phone gag drags down the otherwise naturalistic humor (it’s 2003—these men couldn’t have been that unfamiliar with these gadgets.) But when they finally pull the curtain away from their joint past trauma and shame (a scene with Cicely Tyson, playing the mother of a fallen Vietnam War soldier, alone makes the entire film worthwhile), the until-then implied wounds open and start bleeding freely.

At the end of Last Flag Flying, you might find yourself wishing for a more foreground Steve Carell (who silently breaks hearts in a scene in front of his son’s coffin), a quieter Bryan Cranston with less preachy lines (the film overall suffers from a heavy dose of lecture-like, overtly male tone) and a final discord that puts a tad more at stake. Yet, there is still something admirable and strangely comforting about following the journey of these men who lift each other up despite the shared burden of an old shame. “We were all something once. Now we’re something else,” mutters Sal, looking back at his own painful past. You can argue the entire film is built on this simple enough wisdom. With Last Flag Flying, Linklater examines the unavoidability of change as he portrays lives irreversibly altered by regrets of wartime. Every generation has its own, we are reminded.

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Freelance writer and film critic based in New York. Bylines at Film Journal, Time Out NY, Movie Mezzanine, Indiewire, and others.