Overview: Three men reunite 40 years on from their service in Vietnam to bury a fallen son killed in the Iraq War. Amazon Studios; 2017; Rated R; 124 minutes.
One Last Detail: The films of Richard Linklater have often focused on two themes: relationships and the passage of time. His latest effort, Last Flag Flying, is also interested in these things. It’s 2003, and Larry “Doc” Shepherd (Steve Carell) doesn’t have much—his wife, whom he describes as “slow,” passed away of breast cancer earlier in the year, and he lives a modest life in New Hampshire. He tracks down his old Vietnam War buddies Sal (Bryan Cranston) and Mueller (Laurence Fishburne) and asks them for a favor. Larry’s son has been killed in combat in Iraq, but Larry doesn’t want his son buried in Arlington. He wants to bring the body back to New Hampshire and lay his son to rest in his hometown, dressed in his high school graduation uniform. He asks if they can help.
Back in the war, the three of them weren’t model soldiers. They took drugs, cavorted with prostitutes, and worse off, may have shirked their responsibilities which had a devastating impact on fellow soldiers. From the beginning, the film sets up Sal and and Mueller as polar opposites. Mueller has clearly reckoned with that past, and repented. He’s now a Baptist minister, and lives a clean and clear lifestyle. Sal, on the other hand, never grew up. He owns a bar and grill in Norfolk, Virginia the “grill” portion of which he’s let fall into disrepair, and it seems like the bar part is more for personal access to liquor than it is a business. Sometimes he just sleeps in the bar to make it easier. Sal and Mueller butt heads throughout, Sal poking Mueller’s religious beliefs and lifestyle, Mueller futilely trying to convince Sal that his drinking is out of control.
They also act as the angel and devil on Larry’s shoulders. When they arrive at a military hangar and see the casket of Larry’s son, Larry asks the officer if he can see his son. The officer tells Larry that it’s not a good idea—his son was shot in the back of the head during an ambush. Sal urges Larry to push forward and see, while Mueller pleads with him not to. Here’s also where the movie gets a little rocky, and where it seems that Linklater merging his usual approach with a “message movie” feel doesn’t work. Sal and Mueller find out that the company line over Larry’s son’s death might not be the truth. This sets up a bit of man-versus-The Man that sort of awkwardly pops up intermittently throughout. The colonel (Yul Vazquez) is a bit of a villain, and sends a young lieutenant (J. Quinton Johnson)—who served with and thought of Larry’s son as a brother—along with the trio back to New Hampshire to make sure that the Marine’s honor isn’t sullied by mere civilians.
Pulling Focus: Last Flag Flying is definitely a movie that wants us to question the motives of war and the impact that war has on individuals, not just in the moment but for the remainder of their lives. But it’s also a Linklater movie through and through, so it spends most of its capital on the three human beings at its center, how they interact, reminisce, argue, and bond. These two threads don’t mesh perfectly. Larry, while seemingly the film’s focus, speaks the least of the three. That makes his words impactful, and Carell really nails his opportunities. But Sal, and thus Cranston, dominates most of the dialogue, and while this seems perfectly true to the character, it doesn’t make it any less irritating. I’m not sure what we’re really supposed to feel for Sal, except that he’s just merely a jerk. That’s fine, I suppose—there are jerks out there, after all. But that doesn’t make them fun or interesting to watch in a film. Cranston is a fine choice for Sal’s dismissiveness and cynicism, and he does some fun physical acting, but there’s not much else to it or the character.
Repeating History: The most memorable scene is probably one that takes place on the cargo car of an Amtrak train, when the three old friends are reminiscing about how wild and carefree they used to be. Cranston is his usual boorish and loud, but Fishburne and Carell’s eventual breaking out into laughter feels like true catharsis. Linklater will always have the ability to write sharp and memorable dialogue and coax realistic, emotional performances out of actors, and this is still apparent in Last Flag Flying. This is not going to be anywhere near the top of Linklater’s output in the eyes of most, but it’s still at times a moving and memorable work. The script makes some fine parallels between Vietnam and Iraq, and what those wars have done to generations of regular Americans, but it doesn’t stay with that, or any theme, long enough. Instead, like a true road trip, we temporarily veer off into other areas that are a lot less interesting. Linklater likes to meander, and while Last Flag Flying never comes close to really getting lost in the woods, it never feels like it’s solidly on track.
Overall: While at times a fun and memorable watch with strong performances, Last Flag Flying never truly settles on whether it wants to be a scathing critique of war or a male bonding hangout, and the balance of two comes across as a bit wobbly.