Film Review: Last Flag Flying

by Chris Piper on November 10, 2017

Time heals all wounds, mostly

Sal (Bryan Cranston), Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), and Doc (Steve Carell) on one last mission

Sal (Bryan Cranston), Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), and Doc (Steve Carell) on one last mission.

Here’s an interesting number, 18, which is the number of feature films directed by Richard Linklater. He’s made a film about rootless Austin hipsters, a film about 70’s high school escapades, a film about 80’s college escapades, a film about opening a school of rock, a film about a ragtag little league baseball team, a film about growing up, even a film about two erstwhile friends, their shared lover, and two hours of very tense conversation.  It’s an impressive number, 18, and would seemingly cover just about every conceivable theme. But whatever the plot, whichever the characters, wherever the setting, Linklater always makes films about time. And his 19th film, Last Flag Flying, is once again a film about time.

Time makes its presence felt not all at once, but its presence becomes unmistakable, and over the film’s two hours it slowly, deliberately, lovingly envelopes everything on the screen.

We open on a chilly winter night in 2003, in a quiet bar on a quiet weekday night in Norfolk, Virginia. Barkeep Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston) passes the time in idle conversation with whoever will sit with him.

In walks a perfectly normal middle-aged man who sits down at the bar for a beer. Sal pours, and chats and as the time passes realizes he’s talking with Larry “Doc” Shepherd (Steve Carell), a fellow Marine, and Vietnam War platoon mate. The next morning the two, now thoroughly hung over, round up their old leader Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), now a pastor with a mean streak who doesn’t want anything interrupting his long streak of clean living.

When the three get together, the years melt away. Old patterns and dynamics re-emerge, as do old loyalties. Doc needs the other two to help him receive his son, who has just been killed in Iraq. The boy is supposed to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery, but Doc decides, over the strong objections of Marine officials, to transport the body to New Hampshire for a burial near his home. This neat set-up sets in motion a film that takes place mostly in trains, cars, and trucks, and concerns itself with the weathering action of time on friendships, grievances, beliefs and attitudes.

On its own, Last Flag Flying stands up just fine. Its three main actors are superb in their respective roles, all of which are richly written by Linklater and co-screenwriter Darryl Ponicsan (who also wrote the novel on which the film is based) and embodied by the actors with consummate skill. Cranston seems to be having the most fun as the quarrelsome Sal, and is set in stark relief to Fishburne’s Mueller, a former hellraiser desperately trying to keep his former self corked despite the increasing pressure of the difficult situation and the temptations of his comrades.

Carell’s Doc is an absolute joy. As with most (exception: The Big Short) of his performances, Carell is able to elicit large swaths of emotion with simple lingering expressions, and delivers his lines with such a deadpan that we hang his every syllable. Is he delivering for laughs, or sobs, or something else? Doc seems to have been written especially for Carell, introducing us to someone for whom emotions seem too difficult to express next to dry facts or statements. As grief and anger overtake him, we see simultaneous blooming of a personality. Witnessing Doc’s character arc is reason enough to see the film.

Also superb in supporting roles are J. Quinton Johnson as Private First Class Washington, best friend of the dead Marine, and assigned to accompany the casket to New Hampshire, and Yul Vasquez as Lt. Colonel Willits, who must shepherd Doc through the motions of receiving the casket containing his son’s body.

Larry Meadows (Randy Quaid), Billy "Badass" Buddusky (Jack Nicholson), and Richard "Mule" Mulhall (Otis Young) take a stroll in "The Last Detail"

Larry Meadows (Randy Quaid), Billy “Badass” Buddusky (Jack Nicholson), and Richard “Mule” Mulhall (Otis Young) take a stroll in The Last Detail.

Much has been made of the the connection between Last Flag Flying and The Last Detail, the superb 1973 film directed by the great Hal Ashby, starring Jack Nicholson, Randy Quaid, and Otis Young, with a screenplay by none other than Robert Towne, and based on a novel by Darryl Ponicsan. Ponicsan also wrote the novel The Last Detail. Ponicsan’s novel Last Flag Flying is a sequel of The Last Detail, and while the second film isn’t technically a sequel of the first, it’s certainly a sequel of a certain kind. Cranston does his best to channel Jack (though unfortunately Cranston is a bit out of his depth) and Carell and Fishburne’s performances certainly are heavily informed by those of Quaid and Young. But here Linklater’s preoccupation with time becomes readily apparent. In scene after scene, the three in the current film refer to events, and situations – and their consequences – that could have easily happened to the three in the former film, though the three in the former film are three different characters. For a uniquely satisfying experience of streaming an old film and taking in a new film in the theater, watch The Last Detail the night before watching Last Flag Flying. The two films present poignant bookends of how the incompletely remembered past casts its long shadow over the imperfect present. And, since Linklater structures his film tonally, stylistically, and even uses the same color palette, season, and genre elements of Ashby’s film,  you’ll also be able to compare how both directors approach both large artistic ideas as well as small cinematic details.

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Last Flag Flying opens today in select Bay Area theaters.

Chris Piper

Regardless of the age, Chris Piper thinks that a finely-crafted script, brought to life by willing actors guided by a sure-handed director, supported by a committed production and post-production team, for the benefit of us all, is just about the coolest thing ever.

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