Last Flag Flying
2017, R, 124 min. Directed by Richard Linklater. Starring Bryan Cranston, Laurence Fishburne, Steve Carell, Cicely Tyson, J. Quinton Johnson, Yul Vazquez, Deanna Reed-Foster.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Nov. 10, 2017
“We were all something once. Now we’re something else.” So remarks Sal Nealon (Cranston), a former member of the Marine Corps who served in Vietnam 30 years ago but by 2003, when this movie takes place, he is the alcoholic owner of a dive bar in Virginia. Sal and his buddies may have had much of the spit and vinegar knocked out of them over the years, but they’re still standing and seeking to find their grooves within the contours of time. In Last Flag Flying, Richard Linklater – the director of Slacker, the Before trilogy, and the 12-years-in-the-making Boyhood chronicle – resumes his romance with the mysteries of time and maturation. For a change, Linklater turns his attention to the advancements undergone by middle-age men instead of the boys-to-men transitions that more usually serve as his bailiwick. But no matter the age bracket, the means toward Linklater’s end never changes. Conversations and perambulations in Linklater’s world remain the uncharted stepping stones to understanding and human growth.
Keeping with another Linklater career through line, Last Flag Flying is something of a sequel, although one that plays by self-determined rules. The film is adapted from the 2005 novel by Darryl Ponicsan, who also wrote The Last Detail, the novel which Robert Towne adapted into the screenplay for Hal Ashby’s 1973 film starring Jack Nicholson, Randy Quaid, and Otis Young. Last Flag Flying picks up the same three characters 30 years later, although Linklater, who wrote the screenplay with Ponicsan’s assistance, has altered their names and circumstances slightly – enough so that they’re fresh characters with plausible deniability of their pasts but not so changed that they’re unrecognizable or lack resonance for viewers familiar with their history. The strategy may have something in common with the way in which Linklater touted Everybody Wants Some!! as a spiritual successor to his earlier film Dazed and Confused even though the two films share little more than an ethos but no characters, locations, or plot lines.
The men’s journey in Last Flag Flying begins when Larry “Doc” Shepherd (Carell, once again ably reminding us of his dramatic range) walks into Sal’s decrepit bar in Norfolk, Va. A Navy veteran, Doc is on his way to Arlington National Cemetery to bury his son, a Marine who has recently died while serving in Iraq, and requests that Sal accompany him to the burial. The two then gather up their other old buddy Richard “The Mauler” Mueller (Fishburne), who has traded in his womanizing and hard-drinking for the life of a church reverend and devoted husband. The threesome bicker, reminisce, and catch up during their travels, with Sal and Richard often appearing as if they’re the competing voices of a devil and angel perched on either side of Doc’s shoulders. Once united with the casket of Doc’s son, the truth of how the young Marine actually died comes to light, and Doc decides to take the body back up to New Hampshire by train and bury Larry Jr. in his hometown alongside his recently deceased mother. Accompanying them is Larry Jr.’s comrade and best friend Charlie Washington (Johnson, of Everybody Wants Some!!). Stops along the way at a cell phone store and with the mother of a buddy killed in Vietnam (Tyson) provide opportunities for humor, poignancy, and reckonings with the useful lies told during wartime. The superlative performances of the actors reveal the various shades of the characters, whose disillusionments with the military and life have not quenched their gung-ho spirits and jocularity. In this mid-career work, Linklater, too, reveals more of the colors he has tucked away in his filmmaker’s palette.