You might not know by first looking at it but Last Flag Flying is actually a much, much, much belated sequel to the 1973 Hal Ashby film The Last Detail. In a way. That Oscar-nominated, Jack Nicholson-starring film followed two Navy Men who escort an offending enlisted man to military prison but decide to show him a good time along the way. The film was loosely based on the 1970 novel of the same name from Darryl Ponicsan and in 2005, Ponicsan produced a follow-up called, you guessed it, Last Flag Flying.
In that regard, Last Flag Flying is more a literary adaptation than it is a direct sequel, seeing that some of the characters names have changed, their ranks and enlistment intel altered and the actors playing them are entirely different. Leave it to Richard Linklater though, director of such pillars of cinema as the Before series, Dazed and Confused and Boyhood, to actually make a spiritual sequel with so much actual spirit; Last Flag Flying being an absolutely heartbreaking but deeply funny portrait of grief, family and honor.
Steve Carell, who with the sneaky skill of a ninja has transformed into one of America’s very best actors, is Larry “Doc” Shepard. One rainy night Doc shows up at Sal’s bar, an alcoholic but spirited low life played with comedic bravado and dramatic verve by Bryan Cranston, with nothing but a suit bag tucked gingerly under his arm. After a night of reminiscing and heavy drinking, Doc has a surprise for Sal: Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), their former core brother, a noted rapscallion surprisingly turned penitent Reverend. The three gather for dinner, Sal and Mueller sizing each other up, casting dispersions on one another’s lifestyles, while Doc shrinks into himself. In a hushed tone, Doc reveals the true purpose of his visit: his son, also a Marine, has just been killed in action and he needs to pick up the body for the funeral and he wants the men who escorted him to prison so many years ago to accompany him.
The three embark on a most unusual road trip movie, one streaked with tragedy and comedy, that enlists as many hearty chuckles as it does tearful sobs. The juxtaposition of the three characters, men who in a previously life lived debaucherously, makes for strong dramatic and comedic tension. After their enlistment, Sal turned to drink, Doc got the clink and Mueller found Jesus. Doc is a broken man, Sal and Mueller the devil and angel standing atop competing shoulders. Bickering over his soul.
Carrell is quietly devastating as Doc, his voice rarely rising above a squeak, giving an amazingly restrained but embarrassingly affecting performance. From his shrunken physical stature to his sorrowful eyes, Carrell embodies grief. It contorts his body language, shapes his weakened chin, drips from his eyes. Watching Doc struggle is an experience in raw empathy and Linklater masterfully shares the unknowable horror of losing a son with very humanist storytelling touch. Carrell’s performance never crescendos into a big, loud Oscar Moment rather dutifully remaining true to the soft-spoken, wounded, meek father he is. His showcase is subtle, perhaps too subtle for awards’ voters to pay too close attention to, especially if Last Flag Flying fails to really connect with an audience, but there is no doubt that this is one of the best and most dignified acting showcases of 2017. Not a single shred of doubt.
On the other side of the spectrum, Cranston shows off his comedic chops as the loud-mouthed and occasionally toxic Sal and his performance too soars. Beneath his apathetic veneer, Sal has at least what he deems to be good intentions. Sometimes blindly following his mantra that truth trumps comfort, Sal still has a lot of growing up to do, his cross country road trip with the boys eliciting the biggest transformation of all, captured in a meaningful moment again presented without untoward fanfare. And this is what makes Linklater such a special filmmaker: he drops these big important moments without drawing your attention to it as if his audience were comprised of kids with ADHD.
Fishburne isn’t treated to as momentous of a character but is great nonetheless. As the curmudgeonly one of the group, it’s fun to see him break free of his righteous restraints, returning to the reckless ruffian ways of his youth. When the three of them reminisce about the sins of his past, cackling about whorehouses or regretting the brothers in arms they lost, Last Flag Flying is a triumph, the chemistry of this trio deeply felt, sorrowful, soulful and, to an unexpectedly high degree, funny as hell.
If he hasn’t yet proven it, Last Flag Flying is just another feather in Linklater’s cap, further evidence that he may just be the most authentic and essentially American auteur of our generation. His directorial style here is restrained and poignant, an almost invisible, fly on the wall style that elevates the material, allowing the serene and melancholic beats room to breathe and then barreling us with bout after bout of belly laugh. He’s a master of these unsung stories, that of a once-flourishing marriage disintegrating, of a child transforming piece by piece into a man, of a Texas baseball team partying the week before college starts, of a father picking up his Marine son’s corpse, and he does so without the glossy sheen of nostalgia or the disingenuous tack of exploitation.
These are tales of joy, of woe, and he never dulls the blade of either peak, Last Flag Flying dipping into crushingly heavy material and then bursting into riotous laughs mere moments later. He never revels in the downtrodden so much as he acknowledges the sincerity of that emotion and the complexity of such. This film especially contains the ability to be unchecked tragi-porn but manages to encapsulate the full human spectrum of emotion, including the explosive bits of pressure-released laughter that is due to erupt from a long stay with grief.
If there’s anything holding Last Flag Flying back, it’s the fact that on the spectrum of late year releases, it appears practically imperceptible. Few people appear to be paying attention to or anticipating its release even with the likes of Carrell, Cranston, Fishburne and Linklater attached. But with a film this heartfelt, this heartbreaking, this painfully funny, I urge you as a citizen, as a family member, as someone who wants to feel and laugh and cry at the cinema, don’t let this fly under your radar. You’ll thank me later.
CONCLUSION: Deftly blending snarky comedy and high tragedy in this expertly cast and immaculately performed drama, Richard Linklater’s ‘Last Flag Flying’ is a soulful examination of grief, duty, family and love of country that will gives no shortage of “all the feels”.