Film Review – Last Flag Flying
Last Flag Flying
One of Richard Linklater’s greatest strengths, as both a writer and a director, is revealing deeper truths about his characters through their interactions with one another. It’s one thing to film people talking, it’s another to do it and make it feel alive, thought provoking, and entertaining. What makes Slacker (1991), Dazed and Confused (1993), The Before Sunrise Trilogy, and Everybody Wants Some!! (2016) so interesting is how the various people share their beliefs and personalities through conversation.
That trend continues with Last Flag Flying (2017). In it, we’re introduced to three men who served in Vietnam together, who’s bond was created through camaraderie and tragedy, shaping who they are as they have aged. Sal (Bryan Cranston) is the free spirit, with a vulgar mouth and a penchant for alcohol, and who has major issues with authority. Mueller (Laurence Fishburne) was once the party animal of the group, who has now found God and has become a preacher. Then there’s Doc (Steve Carell), whose experience in Vietnam hit particularly hard, leaving him withdrawn from the rest of society. After years away from each other, the three friends are reunited when Doc’s son – who enlisted in the marines as well – was killed while on tour. Sal and Mueller accompany Doc as he brings his son home to be buried.
With a premise like that, one would expect this to be a depressing affair. And yet, while there is a significant level of sadness and melancholy, Linklater does a remarkable thing in making this feel vibrant and darn near invigorating. A large part of that is due to the casting. It’s been said that if you cast well you have a great shot at making a good movie, and that cannot be more true than here. The chemistry between Cranston, Fishburne, and Carell is excellent. There’s a lived-in quality with the way the three work together, bouncing dialogue off of each other with ease. Particularly between Cranston and Fishburne, whose back and forth make for some of the funniest sequences. Seeing Sal as hard drinking and brash, juxtaposed with Mueller’s reformed Christian creates an odd couple that I enjoyed watching bicker.
It’s fascinating to see how Linklater (along with co-writer Darryl Ponicsan) balances the changes in tone. At one point, we begin to suspect that this is a straight comedy, but then we get pulled back into the reality of the situation and confront the questions Doc, Sal, and Mueller ask. These are three people who served their country, who still love their country, but wonder what it all means when they see young men doing the exact same things they did, with many destined to end up like Doc’s son. We see this theme in the character of Washington (J. Quinton Johnson), a young marine who served with Doc’s son. A fresh-faced kid, Washington reveals all the optimism and enthusiasm of youth, but is only a few small steps away from becoming just like the older guys. The way Washington laughs with Sal, Mueller, and Doc as they reminisce about their Vietnam days indicates how he can relate to them, but also shows us the sad truth that this world is a continuous, never ending cycle.
Linklater never goes over the top with his directorial choices. The cinematography (Shane F. Kelly) is often static, with only a few pans and tracking shots. But that doesn’t mean the approach hinders the emotion from having an effect. In fact, it may even amplify it. The execution allows the character’s personalities to shine and the drama to play out naturally. Comedic scenes are funny through interactions, and the dramatic moments work because the character development is strong enough to earn it. The most powerful scene involves a moment where a character refuses to say something. The fact that the narrative has built up to this singular point so well makes that choice all the more powerful.
Darryl Ponicsan helped adapt the screenplay from his own novel. He also wrote the novel The Last Detail (1973), which was turned into the film of the same name, directed by Hal Ashby. In that, Jack Nicholson plays a naval officer who – with the help of Otis Young – must transport Randy Quaid’s character cross country to be put in prison. The lines that connect The Last Detail to Last Flag Flying are too obvious to ignore. Nicholson’s Buddusky has startling similarities to Cranston’s Sal. But even though both examine masculinity, tragedy, and male camaraderie within a military setting, Last Flag Flying has an identity of its own, mainly revolving around the shared past of its characters.
There’s something great about seeing people with realistic and heartfelt thoughts being put in the same room together and not have it become toxic. The men of Last Flag Flying have all traveled different paths, but have all come from a place that only they can truly understand. No one else can possibly understand what they have been through, or what they are going through presently. It’s that experience that will always link them together, and it’s what makes this something worth seeking out.