Three friends unite after a long period of distance, on a road to redemption, in ‘Last Flag Flying’. In 2003, 30 years after they served together in the Vietnam War, former Navy Corps medic Richard “Doc” Shepherd (Steve Carell) re-unites with Former Marines Sal (Bryan Cranston) and Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne) on a different type of mission: to bury Doc’s son, a young Marine killed in the Iraq War. Doc decides to forgo a burial at Arlington Cemetery and, with the help of his old buddies, takes the casket on a bittersweet trip up the East Coast to his home in suburban New Hampshire. Along the way, Doc, Sal and Mueller reminisce and come to terms with shared memories of the war that continues to shape their lives. Director Richard Linklater and author Darryl Ponicsan collaborated on the screenplay which follows the trio as they wrestle with the pangs of war both past and present. ‘Last Flag Flying’ is written and directed by Richard Linklater, and is rated R for adult language throughout and some sexual references.
At its core, ‘Last Flag Flying’ is a buddy road trip movie that tests the boundaries of friendship. However, unlike those silly raunchy comedies that usually adorn the subgenre, Richard Linklater entertains in spades without any of the unnecessary physical humor or situational gags that dumb down audiences into thinking that there’s a shread of sentimentality. Instead, Linklater and company invest in the dynamics of something far greater than a friendship; the brotherhood of the United States Marine Corps, and it’s in that direction where the film’s journey treads along smoothly without feeling much of the wear-and-tear from the long distance of two very thought-provoking hours spent with this delightful trio. This is very much a love, as well as a Dear John letter to the Marines, as well as every branch of service. The film asks these warranted questions that deal with signing your life away with the utmost respect to the men and women who make the ultimate sacrifice, but does so in a poignant method that should require proper answers for those who are appropriately considered heroes.
Despite this being a drama first and foremost, the film surprised me with just how much I laughed thanks to the impeccable chemistry from three veteran actors who consistently hit their marks in different kind of performances. This is the most unchained that I have ever seen Bryan Cranston, and it’s probably a good thing because his role as Sal totally stole the show for me and proved that Cranston can adapt to any kind of tonal transition with ease. It’s certainly clear that Sal’s best days are behind him, but with the feel good attitude that he takes with him everywhere, he is constantly the life of the party that keeps this film from ever getting too down in the dumps with the downtrodden. Laurence Fishbourne is virtually playing two roles for the price of one, commanding the new Richard who walks the straight and narrow path, while also silencing the old Richard who is a victim of his legends. Fishbourne is definitely the friend who is the most secure in life, and more than a time or two feels like the group’s shoulder of much needed support to get by. Also, Steve Carrell gives another dramatically wrenching performance that alludes this man’s time would be better spent if he stayed out of comedies. That’s not to say that Steve isn’t funny, but it’s roles like Doc that brings the heart out in Carrell, and makes for an uneasy fragility in the film’s central character that comes at an inevitable crossroads with his own feelings towards the government after the leaps that he has to take just to bury his son.
With this being a Linklater helmed production, there’s plenty to prove that the director has advanced in spades with his unique voice of artistic perspective, but that he also still abides by the tricks of the trade that have garnered him a reputation amongst independent movie legends. The most obvious chair that Richard leans on is his passion for dialogue and conversations that tell stories better than anyone going today. In fact, it’s in his ability to let his characters unload on long-winded spells of dialogue that is the blessing and curse to the man’s madness. There’s no question that these reflections by the characters unfurl that flower of wisdom from the past one pedal at a time, but in usual Linklater fashion, sometimes the scenes can drag on a bit too long, sketching an outline for editing that could’ve easily narrowed this down to 105 minutes without sacrificing a single perk of the story. Thankfully, the scenes that feel long are few and far between, as a majority of the film’s banter authentically scales the boundaries of what feels like a lifelong friendship that has picked up after thirty years without missing a sacrificial beat.
The script very much plays on a crossing of worlds, in which for the friends to embrace the future, they must first deal with the unfinished business of the past. The three of them have forgotten a devastating secret between them that occurs during their last days together in the service, and it’s in that perspective angle where the film adds necessary layers of depth to something that honestly wouldn’t succeed as just a two hour road trip flick. Like any great storyteller, Linklater slowly reveals a piece of the puzzle at a time to his audience, revealing the grand picture when the time is right, and when you know it level the most impact. I was worried that this would be the typical, predictable divide in a group that is present in nearly every film that revolves around friendship these days, but thankfully Linklater doesn’t abide by any rules that he doesn’t make, and constantly keeps his grip firmly on the strength of friendship that doesn’t budge or stand down under any pressure.
Besides the hearty investments of time that I mentioned earlier, the only other real problem that the movie has is Linklater’s heavy-handed commentary to sometimes go off in directions that offer nothing of balance or addition to the plot. A fine example of what I’m saying is a scene early on in the third act in which the group stumbles into a cell phone store and decide to buy cell phones, and since this is 2003, just imagine the kind of humor and naive commentary that we can include to give a nod and wink to the 2017 crowds who are watching this who know how important their cell phones are to them. Sometimes it is in its ability to play a little too cutesy to the crowd for it’s own good, and it left me screaming to get back to the story that got my butt in the seat to begin with. Down time is fine, but what this feels like is nothing more than a distraction to the progression of the film, but I wouldn’t believe for a second that this was a Linklater film if there wasn’t some incoherent rambling that has absolutely nothing to do with the material or central premise of the film.
THE VERDICT – ‘Last Flag Flying’ flies high thanks to the mastery of one of the world’s great storytellers in its writer and director Linklater, but also because of the camaraderie between his three accomplished actors who never waver in the ultimate test of friendship. The film could afford to lose around fifteen minutes of needless exposition, however the modesty of presenting patriotism with a price tag is one that will resonate strongly towards anyone in or out of uniform. Linklater brings to life a sharper focus for the issues that other bloodier war films are afraid to grapple with, and as a result gets his most candid film to date over thirty years into his storied career.