LAST FLAG FLYING
Director: Richard Linklater
Cast: Bryan Cranston, Laurence Fishburne, Steve Carell, J. Quinton Johnson, Deanna Reed-Foster, Yul Vazquez, Graham Wolfe, Cicely Tyson
MPAA Rating: (for language throughout including some sexual references)
Running Time: 2:04
Release Date: 11/3/17 (limited); 11/10/17 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | November 9, 2017
They say—in general and specifically within this film—that every generation has its war. Every generation, then, also has the consequences of those wars, and they aren't isolated, either. Here, a man who served as a medic in the Navy during the Vietnam War has seen his son leave to fight the war of the young man's generation. The decision wasn't the father's, of course. How much of the son's choice, though, was made by the stories of his old man's time fighting for their country overseas, by the photographs of his father in uniform, and by a son's desire to live up to and exceed the standards and expectations set by his father? We'll never know for certain in Last Flag Flying, because the son is dead—killed in action in Baghdad.
This is a hell of a burden for Larry "Doc" Shepherd (Steve Carell), the Vietnam veteran father of the young man whose body is coming home—the coffin covered by an American flag but unseen by anyone except for the families of other soldiers whose bodies are returning. It's unfortunately easy to forget how the government handled that side of the Iraq War: the media blackout of those flag-draped caskets—the real cost of the conflict, far beyond the trillions of dollars that would and continue to be spent on it.
The decision to cover up the human toll was made, in part, because of the public's response to the caskets returning home from Doc's war. It wasn't a decision made out of respect. It was made because it's far more difficult to sell a war when the public can see the mark-up on its price tag.
Doc isn't the central figure of co-writer/director Richard Linklater's film, but he is its broken heart, its moral outrage, and its ultimate acceptance that there is nothing to be done. The machinery of war keeps grinding way. The coffins keep returning home. Politicians keep lying and finding shady ways to boost the public's moral. All of it keeps happening, but life, as changed and devastating as it may be, must keep going.
The film sets all of this against a road trip, with Doc being accompanied by Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston) and Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), two veteran Marines who were in Vietnam with Doc. The three bonded over there and back then, and they haven't seen each other in about 30 years. Sal runs a bar. Richard is a preacher. Doc works at the Navy Exchange in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. When they were younger, Sal and Richard seemed as if they would turn out to be the "lifers," but it's Doc who ended up coming the closest. That's a surprise, considering that he also spent a couple of years in the naval prison in that city.
Some of the back story and the setup of this trio might sound a bit familiar. That might be because the screenplay, written by Linklater and Darryl Ponicsan, is based on the latter's novel, which is a sequel to his first novel The Last Detail, which was adapted into the 1973 film of the same name. This film isn't a sequel, though, since the names of the characters and the circumstances are different. It's easy enough to see the framework of the characters, some of their back story, and the cynical tone from the '73 film, but Linklater and Poniscan have other things in mind with this film.
For Doc, it's a story about grieving, yes, and for Sal and Richard, it's about the ways in which people try to define how someone should grieve. This is also a story about guilt and regret—about Doc's feelings of somehow failing his son in ways that would lead the young man to go to war, about Sal and Richard finding it impossible to find a proper way to console their friend, about a shared experience during their war that still haunts them.
Out of the blue, Doc arrives at Sal's bar one night, and after some drinking, Doc takes his old friend to see what has become of Richard. The man who was once tough enough to be nicknamed "Mauler" is now a Baptist pastor with a kind wife (played by Deanna Reed-Foster) and a congregation that looks up to him. After some catching up, Doc breaks the news: His son was killed in Iraq, and after his wife died of cancer, he is basically alone in the world. He asks if Sal and Richard will accompany him to his son's funeral at Arlington.
It's more complicated than that, especially after Doc sees his son's body and learns that official story of his death isn't what Doc was initially told. Doc wants to bring his son's body home and bury him—not in his uniform but in his high school graduation suit—next to the boy's mother. The colonel in charge (played by Yul Vazquez) orders Washington (J. Quinton Johnson), the son's fellow Marine and friend, to accompany the trio and the body, in order to ensure that the fallen Marine receives a burial befitting his station and heroism.
Last Flag Flying simply watches and listens to these men, as they argue about religion, agree on the two-faced nature of the politics of war, reminisce about their time in Vietnam, and intensely disagree about the nature of a lie when it comes to how people die in combat (Cicely Tyson plays a mother who gives them the answer). It's pointed and poignant, especially when it comes to Doc, who's played by Carell as a man who seems lost in every moment. It's a great performance in a film that may find too simple a resolution but that is more concerned with the difficult journey of getting to it.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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