Last Flag Flying
Self-taught writer/director Richard Linklater who is among the first and most successful talents to emerge during the American independent film renaissance of the 1990s offering such films as “Dazed and Confused”, “Before Sunrise” and the 2014 Best Picture nominated film “Boyhood”, takes on another realistic and natural humanist film story titled “Last Flag Flying”.
In 2003, 30 years after they served together in the Vietnam War, former Navy Corps medic Richard “Doc” Shepherd (Steve Carell) re-unites with Former Marine, now bar owner Sal (Bryan Cranston) and fellow former Marine now minister Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne). His visit to them is a surprise as they have not seen or spoken to each other for decades. But “Doc’s” arrival is a solemn one as he is on different type of mission to his old friends. He came to ask them to help him bury his only son, a young Marine killed in the Iraq War. Doc has decided to forgo a burial at Arlington Cemetery and with the help of his old buddies, they take the casket on a bittersweet trip up the East Coast to his home in suburban New Hampshire. Along the way, Doc, Sal and Mueller reminisce and come to terms with shared memories of the war that continues to shape their lives.
REVIEW: “Last Flag Flying” structurally speaking is a conventional film in the purest sense. Meaning, it’s never flashy in any frame during in its 2:04 minute running time, spending most of the film's story portraying very realistically meaningful “in the moment dialogue”. Specifically the kind of dialogue that helps the viewing audience get acquainted with these Marine buddies who are now years later getting reacquainted with one another.
But in the first 30 minutes into their personal story, this viewer came to realize that while Rotten Tomato has "Last Flag Flying" scored at a modest 76, from my perspective something special was starting to take place up on the big screen. Something special as I was witnessing three stirring performances about how men, in only ways our DNA X chromosomes will generally ever allow, how men uniquely show their warmth, share their humanity, share their respect and yes share their love for and with one another. Not with tears, not with melancholy and not with bravado. But rather by drawing on their comradery that has been fortified into a deeper hidden strength from a single shared experience. In their case it was their experience as brave soldiers in Vietnam War.
While the overall arc and premise of the story is somewhat gloomy, as it is always ever present in your mind while its narrative unfolds, this is a story at its core about a funeral procession for a brave dead solider who is being laid to rest by his father and his two best friends. And while there are a few rare moments where the three men do engage in other matters like belief in God, sex and sentiments about being anti-war verse being pro-soldier loving Americans, the film is always buttressed by the wonderful interplay between Cranston’s, Carell’s and Fishburne’s characters as they create acting magic with one another, using both sometimes dramatic restraint and sometimes down right hilarious chemistry that will touch anyone’s heart at the deepest of levels.
The overall strength of "Last Flag Flying" is it is always sincerely honest with itself and therefore is always sincerely honest with its audience each step without relying on simplistic sentimental gimmicks to fill in space or take up time. No its a moving story from beginning to end that is even more elevated by some memorable and unforgettable scenes that will have you thinking about the movie days later after you see it.
The first such scene is when we watch Doc sees his son's casket at Dover military base. The second is with all three men riding in the cargo section of the train carrying the Marines remains home. The third is when they buy and use flip phones on an impulse (remember this take place in 2003 - no I phones yet). The fourth is when the three men take a side trip to a friend's mother home who died with them while in Vietnam. And finally the scene on the day of the funeral ranging from Doc’s home to the cemetery. I guarantee you these moments in the movie will make you laugh, reflect, smile and be emotionally touched by the beautiful seamless transition of experiencing these three men support for one another during one of the deepest human tragedies anyone can experience……………..A parent putting their child to their final rest.
But the real magic in this film is Bryan Cranston. He is the lead engine on this train, metaphorical speaking, as he galvanizes the appropriate amount of inner wisdom, emotional strength, humor and personal reflection that the film needed to prevent it from being dragged down as some simple sad tale of death. His performance is nothing short of brilliant and reinforces what I have been saying for 5 years now he is the finest male actor working in Hollywood today.
Please to all who read this, I implore you to see “Last Flag Flying’ in the theater if you can. If you cannot, please do not miss it when it is convenient for you to do so. It’s a profoundly thoughtful and powerful meditative story about war and how surviving its aftermath can affect people in lasting ways negatively, but also in ways that are wonderful, humorous and nurturing.
One of the best films for 2017, “Last Flag Flying” is not just an excellent story that is well written with terrific executed performances and direction, it’s just a superbly magnificent emotional experience that should not be missed.