Quick Take: Last Flag Flying is a poignant look at life from the rearview mirror, so to speak. It’s a hilarious, heartbreaking, and heroically unapologetic look at life after war and the legacy of a life built post-military service. It’s a beautifully crafted film that conveys all its messages without being obvious or heavy-hand. The story is all the more impactful for letting all the elements develop organically. You’ll be invested, almost against your will, in these men, their journey, and the baggage that’s shaped them into who they needed to be to carry on with life. It’s nothing like you expect and everything a character-driven drama of this type should be.
Fishburne, Cranston, and Carell are a dynamic trio so capable of becoming their characters and living that experience, I’m all in to watch them work together anytime; even if they make me cry like a baby before it’s all said and done.
Last Flag Flying is what fictional stories dealing with the military, veterans, and the men and women behind the vagaries of war (and the lives lost) we should demand of filmmakers. It’s a compelling look at a band of brothers on one last mission that’s a journey worth taking with them.
Grade: A –
The Details: I am never opposed to a good road movie. Road movies provide the way to develop a story and dig into characters without ever losing the forward momentum of the story being told. When done well, you walk away with not only a deeper understanding of the people involved but are more connected to the mission that’s set them off on their adventure. It’s the perfect frame for imperfect people thrown together with a common goal but very different motives for even being there.
This movie shouldn’t work. A mild-mannered man pops up out of the blue to see two former military buddies – thirty years after their tour of duty in Vietnam – to ask them to accompany him to meet the body of his Marine son killed in Iraqi and see to his burial. It’s obvious from the outset these men have nothing in common – if they ever did – and something happened while they were in-country that sent them all reeling in different directions after returning stateside. Nothing about this should work. But from the first moment, Steve Carell’s timid Larry “Doc” Shepherd walks into a bar owned by a clearly intoxicated and seriously bombastic alcoholic Former Marine Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston) and slow plays introducing himself. The story is in motion and doesn’t slow down from that moment. By the time the pair walks into a church presided over by a very reformed Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne) it’s obvious that there’s going to be far more to this film – and their journey – than just traveling to bury Doc’s son in Arlington Cemetary.
From L to R: Bryan Cranston as “Sal,” Steve Carrell as “Doc,” and Laurence Fishburne as “Mueller” in LAST FLAG FLYING. Photo by Wilson Webb.
Richard Linklater’s direction creates an environment that’s perfect not only for road movie storytelling (it feels imperfect, just like any trip in a car with other people should) but keeps the serious of the event that’s triggered this trip balanced with a recognizably irreverent sense of the absurd and humorous (and high jinx) any military brat (and obviously serviceman) will recognize from listening to anyone who’s ever served in the military. His decision to use Lance Corporal Charlie Washington (J. Quinton Johnson) as the bridge between the current tragedy and throwing light on these men’s past and the big secret bubbling beneath the surface of ever anecdote and stark silence works beautifully.
Lance Corporal Washington’s been charged with the safe care and transport of his best friend’s body. As the events surrounding his death surface and trigger an immediate (and painful to witness) breakdown of his father he stands between these old soldiers and the current military establishment. It’s a visibly uncomfortable place to be but adds narrative depth and more layers to this story based on the book by Darryl Poniscan. Each of these men is riding a different edge all shaped and molded by the events in their past and the tragedy controlling their present. But this story isn’t happening in a vacuum. Johnson played this man with a quiet dignity that underscored not only the painful events surrounding this trip but the seriousness of the relationship between a soldier and his brothers, his command, and the camaraderie that never dies among the rank and file. Without taking anything away from the main story he’s integrated into the group and with him all the baggage of military services, the chain of command, and everything that’s part and parcel to preserving the dignity and reputation of the armed services. His presence is rightfully a touchstone for so many aspects of being a soldier and honoring brotherhood and duty.
Soft-spoken and tentative, at first glance, it’s confusing to even imagine Doc holding his own in the company of two blatant wild men (reformed or not Mueller is still the man who served, only wiser) and seeing how that dynamic came to be is nothing short of fascinating. Sal never got over losing his military career in an accident that’s left him without much impulse control and not even a hint of respect for authority. He’s brash, belligerent and clearly drowning out the world with alcohol. Yet surprisingly enough, for all of his train wreck tendencies (trust me they have to be seen to be believed Cranston is a brilliant mess), he’s a stalwart friend. Pastor Richard Mueller is as far away from the man who served in Vietnam it’s almost impossible to picture the man Sal calls the “Mauler” …almost. He, like many soldiers, particularly black men, pulled himself together in the aftermath of the war and hitting an ugly rock bottom through the church and a church-going woman. Fishburne represents an archetypical former Marine turn pastor. That is to say, you press the right buttons and that solider isn’t too far from the surface. He’s doing his level best to live to his best nature but don’t be fooled he’s still more than capable of slapping the taste out your mouth. Discovering what stands between these three men is a harrowing experience with the largest pay off in the end.
As this trip twists and turns (most of the turns caused by Sal’s uninhibited shenanigans) you not only see how they may have been 30 years ago, you see clearly what each man did to survive and get a sense of what it cost them then and continues to cost them.
The story progression builds to the actual burial of Doc’s son and brings their journey to an end. I can’t think of a better way to honor not only the death of the Marine in this film but the lives of the three men bringing him to his final rest. Last Flag Flying is an unexpected drama that touches on more than one subject that’s touchy in every political climate. It tells its story with serious humor, grace, and integrity. You’ve seen men like this, you know men like this. This movie didn’t’ feel like it had an agenda or military propaganda. The straightforward plot and stark look and feel of this film will hit you in the feels and you’ll see and hear what this film has to tell you but no one’s drag you in any direction when it comes to how it all makes you feel.
It’s absolutely worth a watch. Last Flag Flying opened nationwide November 10, 2017. If you find yourself in the mood (find the mood) for a rich character drama masquerading as a road film, this is the one for you.
Overall Rating: 3.75 out of 5