THE STORY – Thirty years after serving together in the Vietnam War, Larry “Doc” Shepherd, Sal Nealon and the Rev. Richard Mueller reunite for a different type of mission: to bury Doc’s son, a young Marine killed in Iraq. Forgoing burial at Arlington National Cemetery, Doc and his old buddies take the casket on a bittersweet trip up the coast to New Hampshire. Along the way, the three men find themselves reminiscing and coming to terms with the shared memories of a war that continues to shape their lives.
THE CAST – Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston & Laurence Fishburne
THE TEAM – Richard Linklater (Director/Writer) & Darryl Ponicsan (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 124 Minutes
By Matt N.
”Last Flag Flying” is probably your father’s favorite film of the year but that is not saying much. Overly sentimental and corny in its humor it is a tonal mess throughout. Richard Linklater has assembled a dream leading cast led by Steve Carrell, Bryan Cranston, and Laurence Fishburne, with material based on the 2005 book of the same name, which serves as a spiritual sequel to the book and subsequent movie it was based on called “The Last Detail.” So what goes wrong with “Last Flag Flying?” It’s not the worst movie I have seen this year. There are some good moments sprinkled throughout but they never seem to come together to create something truly special.
It’s been thirty years since Larry “Doc” Shepherd (Steve Carrell), Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston) and Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne) have served together in the Vietnam War. Now, thirty years later, it’s December 2003. Sal, never having grown up, even in old age, owns a bar and is practically an alcoholic. Mueller went on to marry and become a pastor now known as “Reverend Mueller.” And Doc is a widower who has learned that his 21-year-old son has been killed in action serving in Iraq. Doc reaches out to Sal and Mueller, who he has not seen in decades for help during his time of grief to transport his son’s body back home where he hopes to lay him to rest. Traveling across the country, the three friends reminisce on old times, looking backward, forwards and inwards at their lives and how the war shaped them into the men they are today.
“Last Flag Flying” lives or dies by its performances. Fortunately for me, the performances are of such varying degrees that I was able to find something to like here. Bryan Cranston is playing the single, foul-mouthed, cynical, jokester who has the showiest role of the three main characters. He gets most of the film’s laughs as he tries to lighten up the depressing seriousness of the journey he and his friends are taking. There comes a point however where Cranston just starts to become too unbearable and his silly antics teeter on being over the top. Suddenly, we reach a point where the jokes about having sex with black women and using a cell phone for the first time, feel at odds with the more serious story Linklater wants to tell.
Steve Carrell is the exact opposite of Cranston. Subdued and internally screaming while on the outside trying to hold up a prideful exterior, it’s another great performance from the television comedian who has really come into his own as a dramatic actor in recent years with this, “Battle Of The Sexes” and his Academy Award-nominated performance in “Foxcatcher.” The problem for Carrell is that he’s giving this great performance in the wrong movie. Due to a lack of screentime (Think if Lee Chandler was a supporting character instead of a lead in “Manchester By The Sea“) and a lack of focus from Linklater, who seems to be more invested in Richard and Sal as characters, “Doc” is a bright spot in the film (As the final 5 minutes show) that does not get to shine enough.
And then there is the middle ground. There is Laurence Fishburne. For most, he will probably be their favorite part of the film as he finds the right balance between the comedy and drama of his character. He is playing the straight as an arrow preacher with a dark past and a bad leg to show for it. He gets to play physical comedy and has philosophical conversations about God and the role he plays in our lives. It’s one of the best roles Fishburne has had in years and he finds all the right notes.
Unfortunately and surprisingly, the area where “Last Flag Flying” fails is with Linklater. The film wants to be a political commentary on the reasons why we serve and what does it all mean when our loved ones are taken away from us. Who do we blame? ourselves? God? Our political leaders? The enemy? “Last Flag Flying” does not provide any answers and it asks too many questions that seem to get lost in the shuffle. It also tries to be a three-man character study on top of all that on manhood, mortality and brotherhood both at times of war and at home. So while Linklater has been hailed for being loose with his actors and creating narratives that are meandering and could be called “hang-out” movies, this style does not fit well with what “Last Flag Flying” needed in order to be truly effective. It has a powerfully heartbreaking final scene that is completely owned by Steve Carrell but its not enough to make up for the tedious and scattered narrative that came before.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – The performances by all three leads are of varying degrees in terms of tone which means there’s something for everyone.
THE BAD – The film’s call for the right level of drama and comedy is not mixed properly by Linklater’s loose and meandering style.