Last Flag Flying (2017)

1 Apr

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Directed by Richard Linklater? Starring Bryan Cranston? With Laurence Fishburne and Steve Carell? Based on the sequel novel to the source material behind “The Last Detail,” one of my all-time favorite films? Screenplay co-written by Linklater and the original novel’s author Darryl Ponicsan? It sounds too good to be true, and maybe that’s why I love “Last Flag Flying” as much as I do.

Funny thing is, even though I can see “Last Flag Flying,” based on Ponicsan’s 2005 novel of the same name (which was a sequel to his 1970 novel “The Last Detail,” which was the source material for the 1973 film adaptation), as an “unofficial” sequel to “The Last Detail” (albeit with different characters names & motivations), it still feels like a Richard Linklater film. We still have a small group of characters who are bright and clever enough for the audience to want to follow them around for two hours and listen to what they have to say to each other, which has always been Linklater’s most welcome trademark in his filmography.

Taking the place of “Bad Ass” Buddusky (Jack Nicholson in “The Last Detail”), “Mule” Mulhall (Otis Young), and Meadows (Randy Quaid) are “Sal” Nealon (Bryan Cranston), Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), and Larry “Doc” Shepherd (Steve Carell). The “Last Flag Flying” characters are more or less the same as their previous “Last Detail” counterparts, despite some altered details here or there. (And don’t worry—I won’t make too many comparisons in this review.) It’s 2003 when Doc visits the bar of Sal, a former Marine he served with in Vietnam. Sal joins Doc on an impromptu drive the following morning to visit a church where another Vietnam buddy, Mueller (formerly known as “Mauler”), is the reverend. But after a pleasant time of catching up, Doc reveals to his old friends that he’s had a rough year—his wife died of breast cancer, and his son has recently been killed in action in Iraq. And he asks Sal and Mueller for help in burying him. After some consideration (and reluctance), the three embark on a road trip; first to Dover Air Force Base to retrieve the flag-covered coffin and then home to Portsmouth to bury the boy next to his mother. Along the way, they talk about the past, stop in New York City and Boston, and confront the demons they’ve faced for years. Sometimes, it’s very funny (such as when they decide to buy new handy devices called “mobile phones”—wow, was 2003 really that long ago?). Otherwise, it’s very bitter. But before the trip is over, they will help one another get over the past because no one else can.

Linklater observes these three characters with respect, sympathy, and affection. And despite the terrible things they mention having done in the past, Linklater doesn’t judge them either—he has them address the issue head-on and talk about how it affected their lives. That’s where the intense drama comes effectively into play, and because all three men are distinct and memorable, the conversations they partake in are always interesting to follow. And that also makes it more fun when the lighter, comedic moments pop in for much-needed levity—my favorite scene is the aforementioned “cellphone” scene, in which they go into a department store and are amazed and delighted that they can carry a little phone with them at all times and call someone with the same mobile plan for no additional charge!! (This was 2003—back when we actually used cellphones to…talk on the phone.) But the film is all about the journey they take together, so there’s room for both comedy and drama, and as is the case for my favorite Linklater films, I would join these characters’ company for another couple hours.

All three actors—Cranston, Fishburne, and Carell—are excellent, but it’s Cranston that steals the show almost too often. It’s one of his very best performances, and his cocky charisma even rivals that of Jack Nicholson’s 1973 counterpart of the character.

Now…let’s address a potential “elephant in the room”: is “Last Flag Flying” an anti-war movie? Probably. Setting it at the beginning of the Iraq War and seeing consequences from the perspectives of Vietnam War veterans, it’s not hard to make that distinction. And there are a lot of cynical and bitter comments about the military and the overall purpose of war that heavily indicate that while opponents and locations have changed, the reasoning never changes. But at the same time, when the three characters (plus a friend of Doc’s son’s, also a young soldier, with whom they make conversation along the way) get down to it, they still remain loyal patriots who were proud to help serve their country. I think it’s more of an area in which they’ll do what they feel is their duty even if they’re not entirely sure why it’s their duty to begin with (i.e. what they were fighting for). It’s smart in the ambiguous way it’s treated, particularly in the tearjerking final scene in which Doc, now all alone, says goodbye to his son.

Sequel to “The Last Detail”? Eh, it’s a stand-alone film, so no matter. One of Linklater’s best? Definitely. One of the best films of 2017? No doubt. “Last Flag Flying” deserves the same amount of respect I’ve given to “The Last Detail,” and that’s a very high regard indeed.

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