Last Flag Flying is a rare movie. It’s a daring depiction of the aftermath of death in a modern war. It’s an exploration of the hearts and minds of the people left behind. It’s also a movie that feels at times as if it isn’t going particularly anywhere and manages past fits and starts to reach a deeply affecting end. It’s the kind of mainstream drama that you expect Richard Linklater’s idiosyncratic style might render inert in the same neutered manner of his mainstream take on The Bad News Bears.
At times early on in Last Flag Flying, I found myself miffed at the trite nature of the characters. The ways in which Steve Carell’s sadsack Doc, Bryan Cranston’s obnoxious Sal, and Laurence Fishburne’s cranky priest Mueller fall so easily into sitcom type characters got on my nerves very early in the film and I prepared myself to write a review of the film that was not going to be fun to write. Then something began to change. Slowly but surely, the film began reeling me in and when it reached the end, I was a little teary-eyed as Bob Dylan’s warm tones flowed over the end credits.
Last Flag Flying tells the story of Doc, who attempts to reunite with his friends, Sal and Mueller. The three fought in Vietnam together and while Sal and Mueller remember taking on the much younger Doc, they also consider it a stretch of the term to call the kid a friend. Something happened near the end of the war that sent Doc to a military prison and prematurely ended their friendship, but Doc never forgot about his buddies. Now that he is facing the biggest crisis of his life with no family at home, his thoughts go back to his only friends.
For his part, Sal has been drinking away the memories of Vietnam for more than 30 years. Doc finds him at a bar in Virginia that he owns and somehow operates through his various stupors. Doc had already found Mueller and collects Sal to take him to see the sight of their formerly hellraising friend, now a Baptist Preacher. Doc soon after explains why he’s tracked down his army pals. His son was killed in action in Iraq and he wants his only friends on hand to help him lay Larry Jr. to rest.
Here again we find a moment where the characters slip into trite caricature for a time. As the story of how Larry Jr. died is unfolding, Sal and Mueller take on the rather typical and expected roles of the devil on one of Doc’s shoulders and the angel on the other. While Mueller is a cautious and caring angel, Sal is a hard-bitten devil who encourages Larry to look at his son’s body and then forces others to tell Larry the truth about how his son died, throwing aside a phony story of heroism someone had concocted for him.
This leads to a road trip movie which, again, has the perilous likelihood of tipping over into clichés and typicality. This is also, however, where Last Flag Flying finally find its legs. The conversations these three men begin to have take on weight. Their honesty and enthusiasm begins to shine. Memories begin to pour forward and while there are harsh truths to be told, there are also stories of camaraderie that mean even more and take their time on center stage.
By the time we reach the end of the journey, Larry’s hometown of Portsmouth, New Hampshire where he is determined to lay his son to rest next to his late mother and without the trappings of a military fete, including his dress blues, the film has become something altogether unexpected. Somewhere along the line, the things that bothered me about Last Flag Flying melted away. There is a scene late in the film when Bryan Cranston and Larry Fishburne make an important decision about their wardrobe that hit me hard. It’s a remarkable scene and given the conversations that led to this moment, it could not be more perfect.
By the time this great scene played out and we’ve reached the end of this journey, I was shocked at how emotionally attached I had become to these characters. I fought it. I fought it for almost two-thirds of the movie but somehow by the end, I was completely won over and I think you will be too. These are three tremendous performances captured by an odd and idiosyncratic director whose greatest talent in a mainstream feature appears to be patience. Linklater is extremely patient with these characters. He allows his actors room to find them and then lets us in the audience take our time to come to them.
Not many directors are that patient. A lesser director would try to find clever ways to win us over repeatedly, especially with a movie that is so driven by dialogue. There would be a temptation in a lesser director to add some action, sex appeal, some spicy comedy to the mix to lighten the load. Linklater, however, in his maturity and in his more arthouse-minded experience, remains patient as if he knows that if given time and if he gives the audience his trust, we will arrive with him at that emotional moment. And boy, do we ever.
Last Flag Flying is not a perfect movie but it is quite a good movie. It requires your patience and your indulgence but if you’re willing, by the end you will likely be moved by these wonderful characters and this wrenching story.