Review: 'Last Flag Flying' Starring Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston, & Laurence Fishburne

From the title Last Flag Flying, it's clear this will be a considerably more somber film for Richard Linklater than his riotous Everybody Wants Some, and the change in tone may shock some of his fans. For there is a melancholy throughout this road trip story, following three Vietnam veterans, all still coping with memories of the past in different ways, some healthy and some not so much.  It's especially timely given the recent fervor over the treatment of gold star families to have Linklater's film bring that discussion into sharper focus.

A belated sequel to 1973's The Last Detail, the film unites the talents of Steve Carell, Laurence Fishburne, and Bryan Cranston, revisiting those same Vietnam vets 30 years later. Carell is Larry "Doc" Shepherd"(originally played by Randy Quaid), no longer the angry kid being escorted to the brig. There's sadness radiating from him when he enters the bar owned by Sal Nealon (Cranston, formerly played by Jack Nicholson), who is just as loud, vulgar, and disruptive as ever.  After the surprise reunion, they swing by the church overseen by Richard "The Mule" Mueller (Fishburne, formerly Otis Young), the gruffy, hard-partying 1st Gunner now a conservative pastor (Which actually mirrors the career path Young's life took). He's not so happy to see this reminder of his dark past literally come walking through the door, and is reluctant to help when Larry makes of them a gut-wrenching request: accompany him to pick up the body of his young son recently killed in Iraq.

The request brings memories of the past rushing back to them all, and the film, which Linklater co-wrote with original author Darryl Ponicsan, draws parallels between the two military quagmires. There's still anger boiling within Larry for many of the same reasons. Why was his son sent to fight in this meaningless war against an enemy that was no threat to us? What did his son give up his life for? As a road trip movie, the downbeat tone can be a drag, but it's also rewarding as these characters ponder their pasts, the regrets of their prior misadventures, and ruminate on the bruises their service has left on their souls.

But it's not all gloom and doom. Linklater is a master wordsmith and he finds humor in their solemn observations, mostly from Cranston in the most visibly comic role of the film. Set in 2003, right around the time of Saddam Hussein's capture, it's a time when so much feels familiar to the aging trio, like George W. Bush on TV making the case for war, and yet it's also like time is passing them by. Yes, there is "grumpy old men" humor, as Sal is repeatedly amazed that you can "find anybody on the World Wide Internet". His obsession with cell phones is momentarily chuckle-worthy, but goes on for too long, adding to a runtime that feels padded by a good 30 minutes. The humor doesn't always jibe with the film's tone, though, and it too often feels forced.

While comedy isn't the film's strength, its depiction of the treatment of gold star families is both fascinating and possibly a little thorny. While much of Larry's anger is understandably over the price he has paid personally, it's also in the rigid military traditions that consistently put their own requirements ahead of his needs as a grieving parent. By the same token, what do fellow soldiers owe to the families of the fallen? There's a terrific scene featuring the great Cicely Tyson as a grieving mother, the film's most honest and heartfelt moment actually, where the guys must wrestle with telling her the truth or living with a happier fiction.

Tyson's cameo is a definite standout, but all of the performances are strong in different ways. While Cranston is occasionally a little too over-the-top at times, he also shows nuances in Sal's conflicted feelings towards the military. I wish Fishburne had a little more to do, but he gives a strong powder keg performance. You keep waiting for him to toss aside the conservative values that have been oppressing his wild side, so when it happens, briefly, it's a treat.  But it's Carell who devastates as the grieving Larry, in particular at the moment when he first sees his son in the flag-draped coffin. If there's an Oscar-worthy performance to come out of this film it belongs to him, and I'd be surprised if he doesn't at least get a nomination out of it.

“We were all something once. Now we’re something else,” says Sal at one point during the film. Last Flag Flying embodies these simple words as it examines the lives irrevocably changed by war.

Rating: 3 out of 5