James Cole Clay// Film Critic
LAST FLAG FLYING
One could say Richard Linklater’s films are insignificant. But as Wyatt Russell’s character Willoughby from EVERYBODY WANTS SOME!! says, “It’s about finding the tangents within the framework. Therein lies the artistry, man.” In one way or another, his films are about average people talking about life’s biggest questions.
LAST FLAG FLYING is a spiritual successor to Hal Ashby’s 1973 film THE LAST DETAIL about three marines who party and hang out on their way to take one of their own to the brig. The Jack Nicholson-starring film was a free-wheeling lark that showed its three characters bonding and bickering about the perils of war.
Linklater’s film is a subdued and relaxing story about how a person’s grief sometimes feels inconsequential, leaving us to wonder if there’s any conflict that will arise. Linklater, however, is a filmmaker who is the antithesis of conflict; he opts to show how our psyches work and what it’s like to relate to human beings in the bleakest of times. There are no villains, no cities or lives destroyed — just a sentimental look at the past and how that informs who become in the future.
A forlorn Larry “Doc” Shepherd (Steve Carrel) arrives at a dive bar in Norfolk, Virginia, during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. He comes into contact with the bar’s owner, Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston), a man who enjoys consuming life for all its worth. Doc purposefully tracked down Sal after serving in Vietnam together 30 years prior. His reason: To have Sal and their mutual friend Reverend Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne) join him to bury his son who was killed in action in the war.
The passage of time is always a theme in Linklater’s work. These men have changed and seen unspeakable things in their life. They may have a belly full of life experience, but together they went through a trauma that can’t be unseen. LAST FLAG FLYING shows the toll a life well lived takes on a person. Some find Jesus, while others find love in the bottle. No matter how small the moments, just like Linklater’s previous film BOYHOOD, they all matter. This isn’t a minor Linklater work, nor is it as profound as BEFORE MIDNIGHT. Linklater along with co-screenwriter/author Darryl Ponicsan find their way to veer into the past without pandering to the nostalgists out there. Despite the film feeling small and un-cinematic, it takes great lengths to achieve a film that’s this well acted with a sense of reality that’s right in line with our own.
It must be said the brilliance of Cranston yet again transforming into this character who drinks, smokes and eats at every chance he can get, all done with a cynical smile. He embodies the spirit of Jack Nicholson’s Billy “Badass” Buddusky long after the nickname “Badass” would carry any credibility. Fishburne harkens back to his days as a wizard of wisdom in roles such as BOYZ IN THE HOOD. His role as Reverend Mueller is somebody who completely hid the man he was three decades ago, and for good reason. At times Carrel’s take on Doc is just too quiet. The grief shines through the character who lost his wife and son within a year. A young marine named Washington (J. Quinton Johnson of EVERYBODY WANTS SOME!!), who served with Doc’s son, serves as the bridge between the 21st century’s idea of a military man and the rebellion that came with the fight in Vietnam. The perspective these characters give us show the frustrations of military men that spans 30 years, the submission, to the formalities and the senselessness of war in general.
The film meanders as the men look for meaning in their lives. At one point, the eternally peppy Sal muses “My best years are gone. Any future I had is behind me,” which is a sad fact of life: One day all of us will wither away and we’ll have nothing else but memories. LAST FLAG FLYING isn’t a film with a bleeding heart. The chemistry among the actors is what carries the film rather than the ideas Linklater is conveying. Never forget, this film is about hitting the road with a group of old friends.
LAST FLAG FLYING tackles what goes on the minds of not-so happy veterans without serving the jingoistic conservatism that so many military films find themselves serving. However, Linklater is evenhanded and comedically sharp as his works have ever been. The gloomy look of life has peaks and valleys, but sometimes you just gotta laugh.
LAST FLAG FLYING opens in theaters on Friday (11/10).