Last Flag Flying. Directed by Richard Linklater. Starring Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston and Laurence Fishburne. Rating: 5 (out of 10)
Richard Linklater has proved a master of authentic discourse, of enveloping an audience into his characters’ lengthy debates and most intimate conversations (as seen in his “Before” movies and even last year’s Everybody Wants Some).
Last Flag Flying similarly presents long tracts of dialogue for our consideration – ruminations on war and duty, faith and the lack of it, of life, cell phones and a meaningful death – but the pacing and motivation is so off–kilter that we never connect to the players in the first place.
It’s 2003. Larry “Doc” Shepherd (Steve Carell) arrives unannounced at the bar of a former comrade with an envelope full of cash and a mission. Graham Reynolds’ playful musical intro feels wrong right off the bat. It takes a few moments before Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston) recognizes him as the navy medic that he and a fellow marine hung out with 30 years before, during the Vietnam War. Larry asks Sal to go on a road trip with him; and by the way, does Sal have a car?
They head to a rural church where Sal’s old Marine buddy Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne) is preaching. That manilla envelope of cash and Doc’s mission are revealed: his co-workers took up a collection, and Doc is on his way to pick up the body of his son, killed in Iraq and due to be buried at Arlington with full honours. It is the reverend’s wife (Deanna Reed-Foster) who convinces Richard to join the men on their sombre journey.
They meet the flag-draped coffin in an air force base hangar and are introduced to Washington (J. Quinton Johnson), who was a member of Larry Jr.’s unit in Iraq. Sal coaxes the truth out of Washington and insists that Larry know it, much to the consternation of Col. Wilits (Yul Vazquez), who later delivers a ridiculously foul-mouthed speech to Washington, seemingly to inject conflict into a narrative where little happens.
The trio of actors seems legitimately at ease with one other, though not necessarily with their own roles. Cranston, in particular, seems weighed down by the wise-guy accent and the crassness his character requires of him. His Sal is an insensitive, bumbling boor: the last man you’d want on funeral detail. Sal is on a mission to tell the truth, other people’s feelings be damned. He does it once with Doc, and again (almost) with a long-dead Marine’s mom (Cicely Tyson).
Linklater co-wrote the screenplay with Darryl Ponicsan, and it’s a sequel of sorts to The Last Detail, the 1973 film based on Ponicsan’s novel starring Jack Nicholson and Otis Young as Navy men tasked with transporting a thief (Randy Quaid) to the brig in Portsmouth, NH.
Along the journey we discover why Doc was dishonourably discharged and spent two years in the brig (Portsmouth, again), only to leave the jail and turn around to work in its warehouse. We learn that these men weren’t ever really friends, and wonder if the bonds of brotherhood in service are really enough to keep them together on this journey.
The plot is full of episodic twists that feel less than real. When accompanying your dead child’s casket it’s unlikely you’d go shopping for cell phones and miss the train, for example, and you’d be far more upset than Carell’s character if you did. The Homeland Security mixup is a definite misstep; comedic moments are fine, but the slapstick doesn’t mesh well.
Linklater deliberately circumvents the maudlin, to his credit, but there is missed opportunity here for some real emotion that only comes in the final scene, too late to have reined us in to these men and their shared purpose.