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.
It’s safe to say, I think, that Richard Linklater has been on something of a roll for the past few years. Arguably starting with Me and Orson Welles or Bernie, Linklater hasn’t compromised on his vision and has made several outright masterpieces: His decade-spanning Best Picture nominee Boyhood, the brilliantly funny and surprisingly moving Everybody Wants Some!!, and the sad and beautiful elegy of Before Midnight.
With his latest film, Last Flag Flying, the director has attempted something bizarrely ambitious — namely, crafting a sequel to one of Hal Ashby’s early-’70s masterworks, The Last Detail — and, for the most part, he’s succeeded in making an utterly compelling and moving film, stacked with a brilliant cast, though it stands well beneath his other recent work.
One cold December day in Philly, an awkward and mustached man walks into a bar owned by Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston), a drunkard, womanizer and former Marine who parlayed getting fucked up into a small business. You get the feeling that not much happens there, normally, aside from the patrons staring at the TV screen, mouths agape, at whatever reality television programming rolls across the airwaves. The mustached-man, ripped straight out of the suburbs, feels absolutely out of place in such an environment, and he strikes up a conversation with Sal about his bar.
It’s about then that the man reveals that he served with him briefly, before he was sent to the Brig for dumb reasons, and Sal recognizes him as Larry “Doc” Shepard (Steve Carell). The two get drunk and pass out in a booth, and in the morning, Doc tells Sal he has something to show him. They go on a bit of a drive, and attend a church service run by their old friend Mueller (Lawrence Fishburne), a former degenerate of Sal’s equal who devoted his life to God and his wife after leaving the service. It’s over a tense and awkward lunch that Doc tells them why he’s brought the band back together: His own son entered the service at the start of the Iraq War, and was killed in action. His wife’s passed away too, so he’d be going alone if not for their company, and he asks them to accompany him to Arlington in order to attend his funeral. If only it were so simple.
Thankfully, It’s not at all necessary to watch The Last Detail before you see this film- there’s enough disparity in the character names and the details surrounding them that it’ll prove to be a bit of a confusing exercise — but it definitely can’t hurt. It’ll tease out some of the grace notes in Linklater’s filmmaking, which, as we’ve seen over the course of his career, owes a great deal to Ashby and his contemporaries. There’s an honesty at the core of their work that speaks to the experiences of their characters and creators as they are, and though Linklater can’t even approach Ashby’s original, he may be the best possible person available to continue this story. The director has captured his view of 2003 as accurately as one possibly could, in the styles of the dramas released back then (even with a slow and melancholic guitar score accompanying it), and that, undoubtedly, is something that will turn people off of it. It’s hard to stare into that particular cultural abyss, but it’s as accurate as a portrayal of it as you’ll see.
The performances, however, are its main draw and the source of its separation, say, from other movies about the Iraq war, whose effects beyond the surface-level observations of “PTSD wrecks lives and people’s families” and “Boy, it sure sucks to fight an unjust war” are slowly starting to make their way into mainstream cinema (see also Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, which features the main character watching CNN coverage of the bombing of Baghdad while dealing with her own personal problems). There’s a slight grace to the way that these characters are captured on screen, and though there’s a crassness embodied by Cranston’s cranky booze-and-pussy hound (and expressed through his clashes with the uptight Fishburne) that informs a lot of the film’s humor, it never manages to distract away from the heart and the deep trough of sadness at its core. That sentiment is embodied by Carrell, who is emotionally reserved and remote in a very relatable and understandable way. He conveys so much in his eyes that the script fails at expressing, and he’s given moments that are both easy-to-fuck-up and that other character actors of his stock would be utterly envious of, especially in the ending. All three are excellent, and the movie excels when they’re allowed to hang out together.
Those searching for damning political statements about the Government’s handling of the war or fierce interrogation of the characters’ own service may not find it here. Though the guilt that the Vets feel about their service is crystallized in Sal’s guilt over the painful death of a brother-in-arms (when all of the rest of the unit had used up all the morphine getting high), it isn’t examined much more than in a quiet moment involving the always-wonderful Cicely Tyson, though it resolves his arc more so than it invites criticism. The Army is seen more as a bumbling bureaucracy full of petty dipshits and earnest GIs, and, frankly, that’s probably a more helpful view of them than as Gods With Guns, and that rings painfully true.
But Last Flag Flying is a tribute to the young men who do the fighting and the dying, whose tragedies are an inescapable fact of the cruelty of warfare, and also a tribute to the people that they leave behind, with their precipitous courage in the face of utter despair. It may not be Linklater’s best work, but it’s a damn solid Dad movie, and well worthy of a Thanksgiving watch.
Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus. Photo provided by Amazon Studios