Richard Linklater’s Last Flag Flying opens this year’s New York Film Festival with a seriocomic drama about friendship in the midst of a topical treatment of the consequences and effects of war. With a script by Linklater and author Darryl Ponicsan, Last Flag Flying bridges the gap between Vietnam and Iraq, attempting to highlight the humor, pathos, and universality in soldiers’ experiences, in war and out of it.
The film opens in November 2003 with Larry “Doc” Shepherd (Steve Carell) visiting his Vietnam War buddy Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston) at a dive bar that Sal runs in Norfolk, Virginia. After a night of boozy reminiscences, they take a quick trip upstate to see Reverend Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), another old war buddy who’s reformed himself, gotten married, and become a pastor of a small church.
There, Doc finally explains why he sought out his old compatriots after so many years: his son Larry Jr. was killed in action in Iraq and Doc wants his friends to accompany him to Delaware to pick up the body. Without spoiling anything, things grow increasingly complicated from there on out, as lies – personal and political – are outed and the three friends grapple with their personal relationships, their war experiences, and the way that they’ve coped over the thirty years since Vietnam.
The novel Last Flag Flying is a sequel to Ponicsan’s 1970 book The Last Detail, later made into a film by Hal Ashby. This movie, though, isn’t quite a sequel to The Last Detail. It’s evidently meant to stand on its own despite copious references—and a few changes—to the original story. Doc served two years in the brig for a crime committed by all three, but the film is slow to reveal all the specifics of the crime—building, in fact, to one of the most moving, yet somewhat extraneous, sequences in the pic.
But those details are largely background in the broader ethos of the film, which interrogates (or attempts to) the experience of soldiers in war and its aftermath. All three men have dealt with their experiences in different ways: the iconoclastic Sal has never really stopped being a sergeant, despite leaving the Marines, while Mueller found solace in God and religion. Doc is the most nebulous of the three, enmeshed in grief and still living with the effects that two years in prison had on his life and career. There is no bitterness in any of them, but rather an acceptance of the things they’ve seen and experienced, and the violence they’ve committed. Added into the mix, though slightly late, is Washington (J. Quinton Johnson), a Marine serving in Iraq who was there when Larry Jr. was killed and accompanies the coffin.
The film subsists largely on the strength of its leads, all of whom turn in nuanced and entertaining performances. Saying that any one of them is a standout would be a disservice to the other three, for they all mine the humor, intensity, and grief of a group of men who have been through hell, in one form or another. Johnson more than holds his own with the others, taking what could have been a typed Millennial counterpoint to the Boomer vets, and imbuing the character with a moving, understated realism. Any one of these actors might have over-dominated, but the strength of the other performers, and their willingness to give way to vulnerability as well as chest-thumping bravado, sometimes in the same breath, keeps them from upstaging each other.
Despite a spectacular group of leads and a moving story, Last Flag Flying never quite rises to the heights that it really should. Most of the dialogue scenes — and this is a film laden with dialogue — drag on for far too long, and after a while become repetitive. Yes, Sal is funny and wild and disrespectful, but after he’s gone on a drunken rant a few times, things stop being quite so humorous.
The plots goes through several twists and turns, more or less keeping the men on the road to the funeral for as long as it possibly can, in order to mine every single scene for humor, pathos, or both. The film also feels overburdened, as though it doesn’t want to make a political or moral point, or even a series of ones, but is also curiously light on a providing a deep understanding of conflicting loyalties, desires, and emotions. It wants to transcend the typical war movie, but still wants to introduce all the usual clichés about war. “What was the point?” is a constant refrain, and a damn important one at that, but the film doesn’t really do much with it, instead falling back on the importance of being a “Marine” and what that means to the men involved.
And, yes, this is a film about men. There are two female characters who actually appear, one a wife and the other a mother. Women are mentioned, in passing, in one uncomfortable scene in which the men laugh their asses off about going to whorehouses. War – all of it, including the parts that actually involve women – is still a male experience, and only men are really allowed to talk about it. While this hardly surprises me (and probably bothers me less here than in other films, given Linklater’s aggressive inability to write nuanced women), I couldn’t help but wonder how the movie and the experiences depicted in it might have been enriched by some kind of discussion, at the very least, of the existence of women beyond the whore/wife/mother. But maybe that’s too much to expect from a Richard Linklater production.
Last Flag Flying has so much going for it that it’s a shame it never feels complete. There are some genuinely moving scenes; the relationships between the men are real and honest and endowed with touching complexity; the performances are nothing short of brilliant. But the film itself, the film as a whole, falls curiously flat. It would probably take longer than this review to figure out why this is, and what this effort is missing. Suffice it, then, to say that this is not The Last Detail, and its director is no Ashby.
Four powerhouse performances cannot quite make Richard Linklater's occasionally moving dramedy, Last Flag Flying, into more than a minor war movie.