NOVEMBER 13, 2017
Writer/director Richard Linklater is nothing if not wide-ranging in his taste.
From the stoner comedy “Dazed and Confused,” the achingly romantic “Before…” trilogy and the Academy Award-winning “Boyhood,” Linklater has taken on more genres than just about any major filmmaker around.
This time around he’s defying genre once again. His new film, “Last Flag Flying,” is a military/road movie/comedy/drama. Sort of. It’s a genre unto itself. In fact, there’s only one other film in that genre — Hal Ashby’s wonderful 1973 “The Last Detail” in which Jack Nicholson, Otis Young and Randy Quaid star as military men who have to hit the road in order fulfill a specific mission in the U.S.
That film was based on a 1970 novel of the same name by writer Darryl Ponicsan, who wrote a subsequent novel in 2005 about three different military guys on a different mission. “Last Flag Flying” is Linklater’s film based on that novel and — wouldn’t you know it? — Ponicsan has co-authored the screenplay with Linklater.
Many critics have called the film the direct sequel to “The Last Detail,” but that’s not quite accurate. (Ponicsan said as much in person at the screening I attended.) But in one sense, I felt that it was a sequel, in spirit at least, to the earlier film.
Once a happy family man, former medic Richard “Doc” Shepherd (Steve Carell) lost his wife to cancer within the past year and now learns that his only son has been killed in Iraq. Not wanting to claim the body by himself, Doc asks two of his Vietnam War buddies — Sal Nealson (Bryan Cranston) who is wasting away as a Virginia bar owner and “Mad Dog” Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), a one-time carouser who is now a devout pastor of a nearby church — to join him to claim the coffin. It doesn’t take much convincing for them to say yes.
However, when Doc learns how his son was killed, he wants no part of a burial at Arlington National Cemetery, so, along with an Army escort (J. Quinton Johnson), Doc and his pals transport the body back to Doc’s family home in New Hampshire. And it’s one final road trip for Doc’s son.
The plot to “Last Flag Flying” is not really the point here — it’s just a device to give three richly drawn characters to sit down and reflect on their military experiences and ponder what the war has done to them and where life has led them. It’s not always profound — there’s a hilarious conversation about how each of them lost their virginity that’s anything but deep. But each exchange reveals just a little bit more about their individual characters, and that’s the essence of good writing.
That level of writing is made the most of by Linklater’s stellar cast, a trio of Oscar nominees who know just how to add shading to even the most well-written script. Cranston, for example, is the jokester of the group as if he was still tending bar back home, but as the jokes wear thin, he begins to reveal the real loneliness of Sal’s largely wasted life. Fishburne is all righteousness as Rev. Mueller when we first meet him, but he shows us just how torn the preacher is when he gets a taste of his old debauched life. Carell is cast most against type as the morose Doc who, after spending years in the brig, emerges to find years of happiness, only to have it all snatched away in the course of one year. Terrific work from all.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Cicely Tyson, who, in just one scene, lifts the film to another level entirely.
The film is marred slightly by a few scenes that come off as more sitcom-y than necessary, and I wish there was a little more character given to Johnson’s escort, who just happened to be the best friend of Doc’s late son. But it’s difficult to quibble with a screenplay that provides three such fully developed characters.
“Last Flag Flying” is currently playing in limited release, but at Thanksgiving, it will screen all across the country. If you have a spouse or a parent who was a veteran, you might think about taking them with you — it will likely be a more personal experience if you can see it through their eyes.