Most war movies offer lots of action, explosions and perilous life-and-death situations, but not Last Flag Flying from director and co-writer Richard Linklater. As he has proven in the past, Linklater is one of the rare filmmakers who loves words and lets them breathe onscreen — think his Before Sunset trilogy in which Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy wander around talking about their relationship for three movies, or the 12-year gestation of his unquestionable masterpiece Boyhood. With this adaptation of the 2005 book Last Flag Flying, co-written with the book’s author Darryl Ponicsan, Linklater has again found a perfect vehicle for a movie that unfolds with the power of language and conversation.
As I say in my video review above, this actually seems like it could have been a play and would have been right at home on a stage, but it works just fine as a movie that alternates among funny, poignant and moving moments, all the while remaining a story of old military pals reconnecting and hitting you in the heart along the way. Of course at the center of any film like this is a superb ensemble, and boy do they have one of the best here as three Vietnam vets who served together 30 years earlier and now reunite in 2003 to accompany the body of the young Marine son of one of them who has been killed in the Iraq war.
Steve Carell plays Doc, a former Navy Corps medic and the man who has just lost his son so soon after his wife has also died. Joining him are gregarious, alcoholic and lively bar owner Sal, played to the hilt by Bryan Cranston, and another vet Richard who is now a church pastor, with Laurence Fishburne stealing every scene he can in the role. It seems the military wants the son to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery, but Doc has other ideas, and with the help of Sal and a very reluctant Richard embarks on a road trip, eventually renting a truck and hauling the coffin back home to New Hampshire for a final resting place. For just over two hours, this setup is an excuse for these three men to reconnect, talk about their shared past, the tragedy of war then and now, and many other things of life.
The book actually served was a sequel to Ponicsan’s The Last Detail, which was turned into a movie in 1973 starring Jack Nicholson, Randy Quaid and the late Otis Young as three non-commissioned Navy officers who take one last road trip on the way to a naval prison. The setting of this movie version has been changed, along with the names, and it is now 2003, just after 9/11 and the capture of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. That shift enables this trio, who met during another controversial war, to take account of where their lives have gone as they deal with the tragedy of a new unwanted war. Last Flag Flying, with its respect for the flag and those who serve(d), also becomes a powerful but subtly delivered message movie about the futility of combat and the price we pay for it.
What makes it work so splendidly are some terrific characters you don’t mind spending a couple of hours with. Carell underplays it here, much as he did in his Oscar-nominated turn in Foxcatcher and delivers a moving performance of a man determined to give his only child a moment of dignity as he brings him home. Cranston is a hoot as the bigger-than-life personality of Sal and proves the life of this party, which is necessary to counter the inherent sadness of Carell’s character and the continuing reluctance and crankiness of the amusing Fishburne. Shout out also to J. Quinton Johnson, who is excellent as the young Marine assigned to accompany the three men on the final leg of their journey. Cicely Tyson is also in for a memorable but brief turn as the mother of a fallen veteran, and Yul Vazquez is the perfect military bureaucrat. The casting could not be better for a film that earns its stripes, its laughs and tears in every way.
Ginger Sledge and John Sloss are producers of the Amazon release, which launched the New York Film Festival on Thursday night and opens November 3.
Do you plan to see Last Flag Flying? Let us know what you think.