The Iraq War remains one of the most trying and divisive times in this nation’s history, and Richard Linklater’s latest film, “Last Flag Flying,” tries to encapsulate those emotions through its three main characters.
The film is based off the novel of the same name, written by Darryl Ponicsan, and serves as a spiritual sequel to the 1973 film “The Last Detail,” which is also based off of a Ponicsan novel.
Larry “Doc” Shepherd, played by Steve Carell, is a Vietnam War veteran who loses his wife to breast cancer and shortly after, his son to the Iraq War in 2003. The loss of his son gave him the desire to rekindle his relationship with two of his closest friends from his time in the Navy so they can bury his son with him.
Both Sal Nealon, played by Bryan Cranston, and Richard Mueller, played by Laurence Fishburne, have built their own, polar-opposite lifestyles. Nealon is an alcoholic bartender who can not help but to drink from his own inventory on a regular basis. Meanwhile, Mueller is now a reverend, whose life is morally and spiritually dominated by the Christian faith.
The two accompany Shepherd, after a little persuasion, to Arlington Cemetery. Soon after, the Navy lies to Shepherd about how his son was killed in order to paint him as a hero. Shepherd becomes angry and decides to forgo his son’s burial at Arlington in favor of burying him at home in New Hampshire.
If his son is buried in Arlington, Shepherd feels he would only be burying a soldier. While in New Hampshire, he feels like he could put both his son and his soldier to rest. In Shepherd’s eyes, it’s what his son would have wanted.
The three veterans take a road trip to New Hampshire where they come face to face with several realizations, including the futility of life and war, the decisions of their past, and their now-rekindled friendship.
These realizations prove to be rewarding for both the characters and the audience. For the audience in the sense that it provides a small peek into the psychological effects war can have on people and the different coping mechanisms they turn to, both during and after the war.
And the characters, they truly are, well, characters. Each one is very well-rounded and has qualities that make him unique.
Nealon continues to be the party animal he was in the Navy. He has not matured and does not plan to. Their trip, through his lens, is just an excuse to relive the glory days.
But Cranston does a great job at portraying Nealon as more than just an alcoholic. He is clearly a lonely and damaged soul, and his festive nature never feels like a definition of his entire self.
Mueller serves as a moral compass, but that compass becomes more ambiguous once around his old friends. Mueller is driven back to his foul-mouthed past several times, mostly by his frustrations with Nealon.
Nealon and Mueller prove to be foils for one another. Nealon is constantly questioning Mueller’s faith and Mueller does all he can to remain firm in said faith in the face of Nealon’s constant, and at times ridiculing, questions.
But their relationship is not solely tension driven. Their differences prove to be very entertaining for the audience and make the two all the more likable and relatable. Neither one feels “right,” and neither of them really wants to be, but it is easy to understand where both derive their outlooks on their lives and each other’s.
Shepherd is in pain, and Carell delivers another awe-inspiring dramatic performance that communicates that pain so well, akin to the ones he gave in his films “The Big Short” and “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World.” Most of Shepherd’s screen time is used to convey his grief, a la Shepherd’s sulking.
Carell’s performance makes Shepherd’s emotional pain so palpable, that the desire to see him recover was enough of a reason to sit through the whole movie. Carell’s dreary tone and the grief-stricken look he keeps glued onto his face will be very difficult for any audience to forget, much less not feel sympathy toward.
Really, all of the performances in the film are excellent. With actors like these, that is expected. But as always, it is very much appreciated.
Much like most of Linklater’s previous films (“Dazed and Confused” and “Everybody Wants Some!!”), the film is heavily reliant on the dialogue between the characters to carry the film. This reliance proves to be well-warranted as the conversations between Shepherd, Nealon and Mueller are the best component of the film.
The reliance on the characters is a crux at times. Dialogue can only do so much for a film, and at times it was not enough.
Carell, while excellent in his role, can drain the energy from the screen with his sadness. The grief, while well-acted, does not have enough on the other end of the emotional spectrum to counterbalance it.
I feel like there was room for more of Shepherd enjoying himself, enjoying his new friends or enjoying the memory of his son. Anything really.
One of the best moments of the film is a scene on the train ride to New Hampshire, where the men reminisce on their times of debauchery in the Navy. The men touch on their experiences with prostitutes, drugs and alcohol, all the while laughing uncontrollably.
This scene is the first of the whole film where we see Shepherd exude genuine joy. After being unable to even crack a smile up until this point, in this scene, he falls over laughing. It is endearing, heartwarming and just about every other positive emotion.
There should have been more of that. I feel like Carell’s comedic ability could have been utilized so much more than it was.
But outside of that flaw, the dialogue and interactions are full of raw emotion and humor. The characters are so different from one another, but their friendship once again becomes extremely prevalent the minute they all are gathered together.
The trio works better as a team on screen rather than individuals. They help put together a solid amount of comedic relief and socially important discourse.
There are also scenes where the conversations are not as cheery, mainly relating to their time in Vietnam, and those interactions prove to be just as important.
This is a great film that leaves the audience to ponder several important questions about war.
Are the sacrifices of war really worth it? Do soldiers really know and really want what they are signing up for? And what exactly is patriotism?
The film never provides direct answers but definitely provides an excellent starting point off of which viewers can begin to form their own opinions and ideas.
“Last Flag Flying” is out now.