Richard Linklater’s new film, Last Flag Flying, is exactly what I expected it to be—which is definitely not a bad thing!
We follow three Vietnam-era Navy veterans in 2003: the outgoing and unfiltered Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston); the quiet, softly-spoken Larry “Doc” Shepherd (Steve Carell); and the measured Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne). They haven’t seen each other in decades, but when Doc’s only son is killed in the Iraq War, he reunites his friends to give his child a proper burial.
Last Flag Flying is based on the novel of the same name by Darryl Ponicsan, which was published in 2005. It is Ponicsan’s sequel to The Last Detail, a novel he wrote more than three decades earlier—which was adapted by Hal Ashby into the film of the same name in 1973, launching Jack Nicholson into stardom. This film contains those same characters thirty-five years later, albeit with altered names and backstories. So, consider this film an unofficial sequel to The Last Detail.
This film relies on the comradery and chemistry between our three fantastic leads, and for good reason. Cranston, Carell and Fishburne are three veteran actors who, despite all being brilliant across their respective careers, I struggled to picture sharing the screen together. To my delight, the chemistry between them is fantastic—thanks to Linklater and Ponicsan’s relatable, tragic and realistic dialogue.
The tone of the film is often downbeat, only to be lifted by the hilarious Cranston. Many will expect Carell to take on the comedic role as he is wont to do, but it’s Cranston who so convincingly plays the loud, slightly crude and completely unfiltered Sal with incredible skill. A lesser actor might have made this character annoying and completely unlikable, but in the hands of the ever-talented Cranston, we find him to be a lovable man of great company. Many forget that before Breaking Bad, he was primarily a comedic actor, and here you can very much see his humour shining.
Carell has recently been brilliant playing dramatic roles in films like Foxcatcher (where he was nominated for an Academy Award) and The Big Short; Last Flag Flying is just the latest in a stream of captivating dramas. He plays Doc with superb subtlety; when Doc’s character goes through a deep, personal tragedy, we expect a performance that is relatively big on an emotional scale, but Carell elicits an incredible amount of sympathy with his understated performance.
Fishburne’s character, Mueller, reluctantly agrees to help Doc, having purged all thoughts of Doc and Sal from his mind. Now living a comfortable life as a pastor, he acknowledges that, as a young man, his friendship with the others was a part of a dark period in his life. What Linklater does so well is bring these characters together who are all in different stages of their lives and show the steady redevelopment of their bond.Doc is experiencing tragedy, Sal is down on his luck running a seedy Bar and Grill, and Mueller is shocked and unenthused by the memories of his violent past brought back to the forefront of his memory. It is how these three come together to reminisce that is truly special to watch here. There are many scenes where they tell stories from their past and reflect on how their lives have changed since—and these are the strongest ones by far.
Linklater balances tragedy and comedy with ease. This is a film which is set firmly in his dramatic wheelhouse. It doesn’t have the dramatic punch of his 2014 classic Boyhood or the comedic power of, arguably, his most mainstream film, School of Rock, but Last Flag Flying works as a heartfelt meditation on ageing and reminiscence, while expertly combining his dramatic and comedic tendencies into one whole. Thus, the film’s strength lies in its utterly gentle delivery of the more emotionally powerful scenes.
The plot is relatively light in terms of momentum and narrative drive. It is the bond that is reformed between the three men that takes centre stage in this film. Linklater knows that he has a talented cast at his disposal and he lets them shine.
In terms of direction, Linklater keeps the style of the film incredibly neutral. There isn’t anything exciting going on in terms of dynamic camera techniques, editing or cinematography. With this in mind, the film’s lengthy 125-minute runtime certainly wears. A solid ten-to-fifteen minutes could have easily been trimmed.
What makes the film, ultimately, a success, is the skill Linklater uses to get these three brilliant actors to play off one another through the film’s poignant dialogue. It is the film’s humanity and warmth which keeps it from descending into derivative melodrama.
Despite its relatively loose narrative structure, Last Flag Flying triumphantly explores brotherhood, reflection and coming to terms with one’s own morality. There are some mixed messages about the nature of war itself and I would have liked to have seen a firmer stance on this thematic thread. You can forget this slight thematic inconsistency by relishing in the enjoyment you get out of spending time with our sympathetic characters, who, despite not having seen each other in thirty years, feel like they still have a tangible bond. It’s a credit to the actor’s skills, Linklater’s creative dexterity in eliciting realism, and his ability to balance tonal shifts in what is a tragi-comedy, that indicates this master of drama probably knows how to create these cinematic gems in his sleep by now.
Last Flag Flying hits Perth cinemas April 25.