Last Flag Flying
Director: Richard Linklater
Director Richard Linklater is best known for making films about young people caught in the moment. From Slacker, Dazed and Confused, through the Before trilogy (Sunrise, Sunset, Midnight) to his Oscar-nominated labour of love, Boyhood, which he shot episodically over 12 years, and 2016’s Everybody Wants Some, his films are about youth and aspiration, ebullience and the glimmer of something more. Escaping from their background, characters move towards a sub-culture, be it slackadaisical inertia, college or the School of Rock.
Last Flag Flying, which Linklater adapted with Darryl Ponicsan from the latter’s 2005 novel, is a spiritual sequel to Hal Ashby’s 1974 film, The Last Detail. Except that the character’s names have been changed; Jack Nicholson has been replaced by Bryan Cranston and the late Burt Young by Laurence Fishburne. Set in 2003, it is a road movie in which the quiet, mournful Doc (Steve Carell, hiding behind a thick black moustache and clenching his fists to suggest being tightly wound) seeks out his two former Navy buddies, Sal (Cranston) and the Reverend Richard “Mule” Mueller (Fishburne) to accompany him to Arlington to recover the body of his dead son, who joined the marines and was killed in Iraq.
It is superficially unlike Linklater’s other films. These are older guys looking backwards, partly ashamed at what they did – they are linked by an incident that resulted in a man’s death. The navy, though, is just another sub-culture and as the journey begins, Sal and Mule revert to their younger selves. The bearded Sal in particular relishes the chance to get away from his bar for a road trip; after a while, the characters seem to be spending beyond their means.
The sombre, understated tone is dictated in an early scene in which Doc elects to see the face of his dead son, disfigured by the bullet that passed through it. We don’t see what he sees, but Doc’s face says enough. Carell plays him like an angry lost child – Doc is also a widower – who is determined not to bury his son in his marine uniform, rather in his graduation suit. The kid died fetching soft drinks for his buddies; there’s no valour in that.
The film is at its best dealing with the navy’s public relations machine. Soldiers must not be seen to return in body bags; burials should be conducted with full honours. Sal shares Doc’s disdain for the military, its inflexible text – all marines killed whilst overseas “served their country with distinction”. But he has also never looked better than in his uniform.
The film is amiable enough, with set pieces involving the men hiring a U-Haul truck to transport a coffin and the three guys buying their first mobile phones. It builds to them facing up to their past misdemeanour, specifically visiting the mother, Mrs Hightower (Cicely Tyson) of the young man who died on their watch.
Linklater is not a director who goes for the big laugh or the emotional slam dunk. Working with established screen actors doesn’t keep him honest, though. The film is neither naturalistic nor a Hollywood romp, but something in between.
Cranston enjoys himself as Sal, confrontational and determined to have some form of adventure, even though the mission doesn’t warrant it. The weight of Cranston’s past roles playing decent principled men undercuts his work here. Fishburne gives the most relaxed performance, the Reverend easily needled by his former buddy. Carell is just inert; you don’t believe that Doc would seek out Sal and Mule. He would go with his colleagues from the Navy Exchange.
Credibility concerns aside Last Flag Flying is moderately entertaining. It has something to say about military service and grief, even if it ends up enthralled to the conventions that it questions.