Last Flag Flying review: Bryan Cranston, Steve Carell and Laurence Fishburne star as three Vietnam war vets who take to the road in this warm, affecting tale from Richard Linklater.
Last Flag Flying review by Paul Heath.
Richard Linklater is enjoying quite the career now. Following his Oscar nominations for the brilliant 12-years-in-the-making Boyhood, his nostalgic look back at the 1970s, and indeed his indie masterpiece that is Dazed and Confused with the much-loved Everybody Wants Some!!, Linklater has now opted for something completely different – a character-driven comedy-drama based around the fall-out of war, loss and never leaving a comrade behind with Last Flag Flying.
Billed as a ‘spiritual sequel’ to Hal Ashby’s 1973 Oscar-nominated, Vietnam-set movie The Last Detail, a film which boasted the talents of Jack Nicholson, Randy Quaid and Otis Young, Last Flag Flying is set in 2003 during the invasion of Iraq. This story, however, is not set in the desert, but thousands of miles away on America’s east coast. In the first scene we meet Steve Carell’s Larry “Doc” Shepherd, a former serviceman who rolls up to ‘Sal’s Bar’, a run-down joint somewhere in Norfolk, West Virginia. Its proprietor, Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston) propping up the bar, as much a keen consumer of the alcoholic beverage as his customers, few and far between as they are. Doc is here for a purpose, something which becomes apparent after Sal eventually recognises him as a former company colleague, and Vietnam vet from their days in the U.S. Marines. The two spend the rest of the evening reminiscing of old times, while at the same time getting monumentally inebriated in the confines of Sal’s establishment.
The following day, hangovers naturally present themselves, but so does a proposal from Doc to take Sal on a short trip across the state, something to which he agrees to. Not knowing of his destination, Doc takes Sal on a journey to meet their old friend, Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), who has seemingly side-stepped his vices; notably drink, girls and drugs, for the life of a preacher. Over a hastily arranged dinner with Mueller and his wife, Doc drops a bombshell that his son has been killed in Iraq, and wants both Sal and Mueller to accompany him to help bury him in a full-honours funeral in Arlington Cemetery in Washington D.C., something that the two eventually agree to. What follows is a journey of three men rediscovering one another, the opening of old wounds and healing of new ones.
Last Flag Flying is a sometimes comedic, often heartfelt journey that everyone will have something to identify with. Of course, there are the themes of loss from Carell’s character’s point of view, but it is also about re-connection, specifically with old friends who have had heavily influence during key times in one’s life, and this motion picture fully exploits this and uses the loose connection with The Last Detail extremely well. It is an extremely brilliant device to connect a new story to one that may not have been one of the most remembered from forty-plus years ago, and only adds to the experience if you’ve managed to see the previous work.
Of course, in no way do you need to have seen the 1973 movie – this is very much a stand-alone film to get lots from. Its key positive ingredient are the three leads, and while Steve Carell brings most of the more sombre moments to proceedings for obvious reasons, it is both Fishburne and particularly Cranston who lead the way in terms of pure entertainment factor. Both portray their characters wonderfully, both Sal and Mueller still harbouring their own personal pain within, a key component brought to the fore superbly by the duo, who also have a very intriguing on-screen chemistry that is adelight to watch..
Linklater’s choice to direct a film of this nature is a strange one, but obviously his experience of deep character-driven drama brings a naturalistic, emotional, thought-provoking narrative to the screen, though one with tons of comedic injection. It’s great to see him taking on something a little broader in terms of his skill-set too, and while it may not have that Linklater feel, there’s a lot of the filmmaker in there, and the completists should be happy with this ravishing road movie.
It is a slight, but welcome departure from Linklater’s previous efforts, but it is also funny, honest, warm and at times hugely sentimental. Last Flag Flying flies higher than most similar efforts in years, and comes highly recommended.
Last Flag Flying review by Paul Heath, October 2017.
Last Flag Flying is released in UK cinemas on Friday 26th January 2018.