A Vietnam veteran enlists the help of his estranged soldier buddies to bury his fallen Marine son, embarking on a road trip which will force them to reflect on a changing world and the notion of brothers in arms—in this reflective and poignant road comedy/drama with the footprints of Hal Ashby’s‘The Last Detail’, from the director of ‘Dazed and Confused’ and ‘Before Sunset’.
After dedicating his previous two films to the wonders of youth with a groundbreaking nuanced exploration of childhood in ‘Boyhood’ and revisiting the reckless abandon of school days gone by in ‘Everybody Wants Some!!’, writer/director Richard Linklater navigates the uncharted waters of later life with a classic American road comedy/drama. Crafting a funny but reflective and poignant tale of camaraderie and an ode to the notion of brothers in arms—but with plenty to say about the great American war machine and the young men and women who get ground up by its gears.
Steve Carell stars as Vietnam veteran ‘Larry “Doc” Shepherd’, who recruits his estranged former Marine buddies—rebellious bar owner ‘Sal’ (Bryan Cranston) and now respectable reverend ‘Mueller’ (Laurence Fishburne)—for an impromptu road trip to bury his fallen soldier son, looking for sympathetic shoulders to lean on as he struggles with his boy’s death during the Iraq war. As they reflect on past glories, tragic experiences and questionable decisions, this funny and bold but introspective and sombre journey leaves them questioning the system responsible for their personal tragedy—but reaffirming the bond between those who answer the call to make the ultimate sacrifice.
Any fan of the Jack Nicholson-led classic American road comedy/drama ‘The Last Detail’ might find this film familiar in terms of theme, and that’s no coincidence as ‘Last Flag Flying’ is co-written by and adapted from the novel by Darryl Ponicsan, who also wrote ‘The Last Detail’—which makes this a spiritual successor to Hal Ashby’s 1973 film, but in no way a sequel. Yet Linklater’s effort is a film of its time and age; one with a more sombre and reflective tone and different character dynamics, more overtly funny when comedic and more poignant and comfortable with emotion when dramatic—but not afraid to question the political status quo of war and lay the responsibility on the correct doorstep . . . although it certainly doesn’t go as deep as Oliver Stone territory.
‘Last Flag Flying’ is very much an ensemble road movie, featuring plenty of laughs in the form of inappropriate behaviour and some clever quips, often revolving around the ravages of ageing and delivered by Cranston’s character—the fast-talkin’ wildcard of the trio. Yet the humour is counterbalanced by plenty of poignancy and pathos, with Fishburne proving to be the voice of reason of the group as their journey places them in sticky situations—but Carell is undoubtedly the moral heart of the piece. The supremely relatable comedy superstar once again displays his subtle and impressive dramatic chops as the character who represents the face of grief and regret . . . and perhaps America’s collective loss of innocence.
Indeed this is also somewhat of an overtly political and socially conscious piece from Linklater, as he injects a ‘state of America’ element into this character dramedy, taking aim at the system and bureaucracy which deceptively puts young Americans in harm’s way, often for less than noble reasons. Yet the film never goes beyond the surface of moral outrage, only skimming over the last 100 years of American militarism across the globe, and the veil of freedom and patriotism which covers it all—but then that’s not what this film is about.
Ultimately this is a story of sacrifice, loss and brotherhood, an ode to the armed forces and those they leave behind to risk life and limb for an ideal and a sense of duty—clearly sending a message of respect and appreciation regardless of the motives for which they are deployed . . . and the dubious people who send them. Although it may prove a slightly underwhelming cinematic journey which doesn’t really offer anything incisive, profound or new when it comes to grief and the notion of ‘brothers-in-arms’, there’s enough genuine heartfelt poignancy balanced with plenty of well-judged humour to make for an entertaining and touching tale—not to mention more than enough character and acting talent to heavily lean on.
The Bottom Line…
An often hilarious, regularly poignant and occasionally reflective later life road comedy/drama, ‘Last Flag Flying’ may not be particularly profound or chart new territory, but it has more than enough character and an embarrassment of acting riches to make for a touching and sincere tribute to brotherhood—with the even hand of its director making it a fitting ode to soldiers and their sacrifice . . . regardless of the context.
‘Last Flag Flying’ is out now in UK and US cinemas.