Last Flag Flying

Studio: Amazon Studios / Lionsgate
Directed by Richard Linklater

Nov 02, 2017 Web Exclusive
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A car pulls into the driveway of widower Larry Shephard, and two men in uniform get out. They’re there to tell the Vietnam combat veteran that his son – who followed him into the Marine Corps, and was the last person in Larry’s life following his wife's death – has been killed in Baghdad. His body is en route to the U.S., where he’s due a burial with full honors in Arlington National Cemetery.

This exchange, which occurs off-screen, is what triggers the events of Last Flag Flying, a new film by Richard Linklater and adapted from the novel of the same name by Darryl Ponicsan. The bereaved father (Steve Carrell) has nowhere to turn when he receives the worst news of his life. Lost in his own grief, he seeks out two old Marine Corps pals – neither of whom he’s seen since leaving Vietnam three decades earlier. When he shows up on their doorsteps, they eventually agree to accompany Larry on his difficult journey.

The relationship between these three men is the meat of the movie. Sal (Bryan Cranston) and Richard (Laurence Fishburne) could not be more diametrically opposed; the former, an unattached alcoholic who may be retired from the Corps but never put those days behind him, and the latter now a Baptist minister. Each feels a very different responsibility towards their grieving pal; they flank him, like a devil and an angel sitting on each of his shoulders. As the two wage their philosophical battles, the unlikely trio must eventually come to terms with a dark period in their shared past, when they were not yet these hard-set men but young soldiers.

From the description, “three Vietnam vets recover the body of one’s dead son,” Last Flag Flying sounds like the world’s bleakest road trip buddy movie. And yes, it’s as heartbreaking as you might guess. It’s also very funny; with all that the men lost in the war and over the course of their rough lives, their senses of humor remained intact. As they spend time together, their former selves – and old friendships – start to shine through the hardened veneers.

Last Flag Flying is carried by its ace performances. Carrell and Fishburne are very good in their roles, but both are relatively buttoned-down: the first, by grief, and the second by his collar. It’s Cranston, though, as the grizzled figure of anarchy who shines brightest. His character is half-drunk through most of the film, and Cranston delivers the film’s best lines with sleepy eyes and growled sharpness.

In equal amount statements about ageing, war, patriotism, and platonic love between men, there’s little doubt Last Flag Flying will receive some awards recognition at year’s end. The biggest thing holding it back, though, is a somewhat bloated runtime, in big part due to Linklater’s odd obsession with his 2003 setting. The filmmakers treat the year like it’s ancient history, rather than a time most viewers remember all too well. This leads to several unnecessary (and semi-improvised-looking) scenes such as where the guys purchase and learn to use their first cell phones, and pointlessly long conversations about the novelty of the Internet and whether or not Eminem is white. More judiciously trimmed, Last Flag Flying could have been 15 minutes shorter (and maybe a real contender for the year’s best film.) 

Author rating: 7/10

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