“LAST FLAG FLYING”
Making a great motion picture really takes only two things. It must have actors who can handle any demand, from a heart-pounding moment of drama to a free-for-all comedy assault. It’s also mandatory to have a script that evokes real emotions without being cloying, takes a smart look at life without coming across as seeing the world through a superior viewpoint, and presents dialogue rich in subtleties delivered in a real-world manner.
Richard Linklater’s “Last Flag Flying” is so rich in these two elements that it deserves a place on the list of the best films of the year. It’s a marvelous tale of friendship, family, duty, respect, pain and fear that comes to life through the sterling performances by Steve Carell, Laurence Fishburne and Bryan Cranston.
In 2003, former Navy Corps medic Richard “Doc” Shepherd (Carell) tracks down ex-Marines Sal (Cranston) and Mueller (Fishburne), two men he served with during the Vietnam War 30 years earlier. Shepherd hasn’t seen the two men for decades but enlists them in the solemn duty of helping him transport and bury his son, a young Marine killed in the Iraq War. Although both men have gone on to very different lives, they agree to help.
Their mission changes dramatically when the truth about the death of Shepherd’s son is revealed. The three men are forced into a longer journey to get the casket to a final resting place while making personal journeys of reflection and reconnection.
Linklater’s script — co-written with Darryl Ponicsan — is so beautifully fashioned, all Linklater had to do was allow his actors to bring their boundless skills to the project. His direction is very simple, never moving too far away from an intimate look at the players. He was smart enough with his three main stars to select actors who are as accomplished in dealing with drama as they are handling comedy.
There are some funny moments in “Last Flag Flying,” usually the result of some passionate and painfully honest declaration by Cranston’s character about everything from the military to religion. His rants could have overpowered the story, but having Fishburne play a preacher gives the movie a nice balance. Linklater was smart enough to recognize that Carell is at his best when he’s forced to play a confined role. That doesn’t mean his emotional waves are not grand, it just means that Carell can show the deep pain of a father losing a son with just a look.
Watching Cranston, Fishburne and Carell give life to Linklater’s words is like watching master painters at work. Each attacks the canvas with a very different style, but what they create together is made stronger by the other.
It would have been easy for Linklater to make this an anti-war film or a pro-military production. There are moments when both are discussed with a kick-to-the-gut frankness, but they always give way to the very human aspects of this story.
Linklater shows through comparisons between the war in Iraq and the Vietnam War that the way soldiers fight battles may change but the effect war has on them has not. It’s how those soldiers deal with the aftermath that is the core of the story.