Stories about the military have always been ubiquitous in the world of filmmaking. Unfortunately, there has never been a shortage of wars and their aftermath to provide source material for filmmakers. Two wars are at the heart of Richard Linklater’s Last Flag Flying, even if it doesn’t contain one minute of fighting.
Steve Carell plays Larry “Doc” Shepherd, a Vietnam War veteran who served with the brash and outspoken Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston) and the newly pious Rev. Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne). Now 2003, the trio have been out of touch since that war ended, but Doc tracks Sal and Richard down for a horrible reason: His son has been killed in action in Iraq.
With his wife also gone, Doc has no one to help him through this fresh tragedy, and he reverts back to men with whom he shared one of the most extreme times of his life. Doc wants to bury his son in his hometown, and he implores Sal and Richard to help him see it through.
It’s heavy stuff, and Linklater and co-writer Darryl Ponicsan (who also wrote the book on which the film is based) don’t shy away from details like the circumstances of Doc’s son’s death or the men's experiences in Vietnam. But it’s also a road movie directed by Linklater, which means there’s also plenty of lightness and humor.
What these three men saw and did in Vietnam has shaped their lives in countless ways. Given the chance to compare their knowledge to the situation at hand and/or criticize the war in Iraq, they don’t hold back. While not a completely anti-war film, it offers plenty of commentary on the state of warfare and how its secrets can affect soldiers and their families.
Ponicsan’s 2005 book was a sequel to The Last Detail, his 1970 book that was turned into an Oscar-nominated film starring Jack Nicholson. But don’t go looking for a Last Detail movie sequel here, as the names of the three men and the circumstances of their relationship have been vastly changed.
While the details of the story are dramatic and dredge up some big emotions, the film is not as successful when it comes to the characters' portrayal. Each man in the trio seems to be more of a caricature than a fully-realized person, and Linklater never convincingly establishes the depths of their friendship.
That said, you could do worse than watch Cranston, Carell, and Fishburne volley lines back and forth for two hours. Whether they’re over-acting (Cranston), under-acting (Carell), or being the straight-man for the other two (Fishburne), these talented actors always hold your attention.
Last Flag Flying has a lot to say, and it finds mostly successful ways in which to say it. It may not be the most effective movie of the year, but its unusual story is a worthwhile experience nonetheless.