Last Flag Flying Review
Jokes about Eminem, George Bush Junior on the telly and aren't mobile phones weird? Last Flag Flying is so 2005. To be fair, that's when the novel by Darryl Ponicsan is set, a sequel to The Last Detail (making this film an unofficial sequel to Hal Ashby's film of the same name starring Jack Nicholson). It seems a missed opportunity by Richard Linklater to not bring it up-to-date. The time-capsule bubble it creates for itself is further emphasised when we consider what an incredible achievement Boyhood is, a film in which Linklater deftly handled time as a key part of both the production and the narrative. In comparison, Last Flag Flying feels throttled by its insistence to live in the past. Ironic it should feel out of date when it good-naturedly teases at least one character for that very thing.
It is uncharacteristically baggy. Richard Linklater is a master of understated, precise drama with perfectly judged middle-of-the-road filmmaking and timeless screenplays that capture the real America, mean something and are driven by people we can all recognise. Last Flag Flying is a story that gets lost in contrived sentimentality and fumbles a frustrating ending that leaves it sat firmly on the fence. Perhaps it is by design and a point is being made, which sort of works, but only by betraying the characters whose company we have come to enjoy.
Nevertheless, there's nothing quite like it and if you're in the mood for Linklater's particular brand of gentle drama, you're not going to find it anywhere else. It's the cinematic equivalent of a contented sigh and the three excellent leads have an easy charm, giving us the memorable Linklater characters which we are used to. Steve Carell almost disappears into the reserved role of Larry "Doc" Shepherd, the grieving father, and it is through him that the film's message is most successful. The anger we feel through grief is useless, giving way to the resignation etched on Doc's weary face and you could argue that being angry at your Government is similarly impotent. It is in the moment of wanting to honour his fallen son while seething at the predictable false pride the Marine superiors exhibit that leads him to insist on taking the body across the country himself; to remove responsibility from his President and feel that he is doing something. Doc's dignified protest is relevant today. But it's also a story about friendship and looking to the future.
Doc is supported by his two old army buddies, who he looked up specifically to help him. They haven't seen each other since Vietnam, but share a guilty secret (the story in The Last Detail) and a distrust of their Government. It is a credit to all three actors that they don't suffocate each other, especially Bryan Cranston and Laurence Fishburne in what could be ostentatious roles that are effectively a devil and an angel sat on Doc's shoulders. Cranston is fantastic as Sal, clearly relishing a fun role that has a solid base. He makes a cartoony loudmouth amiable and real, while Fishburne is his equal as the kindly, but reserved Preacher Richard Mueller who nevertheless can't stop slipping into old habits, much to Sal's delight. They are escorted by a young Marine (J. Quinton Johnson) who, despite orders to the contrary, enjoys being part of this weird little band. The film is a delight when the elder three are bickering, even when the jokes are oddly of another time. A standout scene is them showing off and reminiscing, with Sal's clowning steadily letting Doc open up. Carell, in particular, is marvellous in that moment.
Little Miss Sunshine, a wonderful film springs to mind, but Linklater isn't quirky. This isn't a sombre comedy farce of Three Old Men and a Coffin so each escapade is quickly diffused into what would feasibly be the reality of the situation. For the most part, this gives the film value and authenticity, and it's smartly funny, but coupled with poor pacing, it can also feel like the wind dropping from its sails. It should have been a quiet protest to the brash Trumpian politics we have to suffer through right now, but instead, it swings and misses. Heck, it even apologizes for trying if the odd tone of the ending is anything to go by.
Last Flag Flying is a pleasant place to spend a couple of hours if you forgive its political agenda disappearing with a shrug. It is almost as if the film is enjoying itself so much it doesn't want to kill the mood, and it's charming enough to be forgiven. Perhaps the political overtone is a bluff. Just something to hang the real story on, which is a far simpler tale about moving between the chapters of your life and holding onto what's important, even when it feels like the most important things have already been taken away. Old jokes and fluffed endings or not, the banter is fabulous and there are plenty of satisfying nods to the original story.