“Last Flag Flying” is Richard Linklater’s creation, co-writing and directing this statement piece about war and politics. Starring Bryan Cranston, Laurence Fishburne, and Steve Carell, this gut-wrenching story about a father’s loss of his son in Iraq, is more mess than message.
Larry ‘Doc’ Shepherd (Carell) shows up on bar owner Sal’s doorstep, reuniting the two after serving in Vietnam. There’s a certain quiet about Doc’s demeanor as the they reminisce. Seeking out their third buddy, Mueller (Fishburne) who has become a Baptist preacher, Doc reveals why he has come to them which then explains that quietness. He asks for their help in burying his son in Arlington National Cemetery.
What seems like a straightforward request becomes an ever-increasingly tangled web of missteps and misinformation leading to a road trip for the three men. There’s a hidden uncomfortable secret among them, haunting them for the past 30 years. Attempting to reconcile this with truth-telling is one of the goals along this adventure. Doc, a sweet, loving and simple man balances the two other extreme personalities. He has the devil, Sal on one shoulder, and an angel, Mueller on the other. The two counsel Doc in their very unique ways, both attempting to help their former Marine buddy.
The emotional devastation this film captures is undeniable. There can be nothing worse than losing a child. The film adds to Doc’s heartbreak by creating military lies discovered and blunt conversations about the unnecessary wars and loss of young lives. It is no doubt that Linklater has a statement about this as the characters discuss Vietnam and all wars since. Whether you stand behind what the U.S. has done or not, the film becomes preachy and redundant.
Carell and Fishburne bring heart to their characters, but Cranston seems to be on stage performing with almost cartoon-like physicality. This fun-loving alcoholic character is there for comedic relief as the story tackles a difficult topic. Carell’s understated performance allows us to have a true connection with him watching that dark cloud hovering over him. Fishburne finds a way to balance the sullenness of Doc and the frenetic Sal and shines when he’s delivering humorous responses. While there are some laugh out loud moments, the story, unfortunately, meanders too much, setting up ridiculous situations and repetitive conversations about race and religion stemming from Sal’s lack of social skills.
The saving grace of the film is its ability to communicate the bond between the Marines as a group. We learn about Doc’s son’s state of mind while he was in Iraq. We hear from his best friend Washington (J. Quinton Johnson) about the camaraderie in their troop. It’s insightful and we genuinely comprehend their position. It is this aspect of the film and getting to know more about this dead soldier that creates a powerfully touching film. “Last Flag Flying” starts out strong and ends on a remarkably moving note, but the guts of the film lack direction. A 20-minute edit would have done wonders for this film.
Never having served in the military, it is difficult for me to judge how this will be interpreted by veterans or those currently serving. The film makes a statement using Sal as the mouthpiece to identify lies and deceit by the government, politicians, and the military. But it also shows the bond that is never broken among men.
2 1/2 Stars