Film Review: Last Flag Flying

Superb dramedy about three Vietnam vets who embark on an eventful road trip to assure a proper hometown burial for one vet’s Iraq War-casualty son. Quality-seeking recruits also out for old-fashioned movie entertainment will get in line.
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Following up his Boyhood success, Richard Linklater gifts those audiences and no doubt a broader one with Last Flag Flying and the perfect casting of Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston and Laurence Fishburne as a diverse trio of former war buddies who also share a past of far-from-perfect behavior. The film offers a welcome effusion of down-home flesh-and-blood characters who resonate as real and, in spite of their flaws, immensely appealing.

Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston) is an alcoholic (but reformed) Virginia bar owner who’s a good-time boy with a love for the ladies and a joke or five. Straightforward and full of nervous energy, he speaks his mind and coddles his cynicism in humor. Into his bar Larry “Doc” Shepherd (Steve Carell), a soft-spoken former wartime buddy and Navy medic, arrives, at first unrecognized. Doc is the type not to be remembered. He’s a classic sweet underachiever who, as a New Hampshire native, prefers life on the quiet side.

But certainly not the tragedy that befell him: It’s now 2003 and his only son, Larry Jr., has been killed in the Iraq War. Because he cannot bear the pain alone, he asks Sal to accompany him to Dover Air Force Base to retrieve the body for burial in Arlington Cemetery. Sal is loyal and gets onboard, but there’s a third vet pal to enlist: That’s Rev. Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), whom the men surprise at his house of worship.

Mueller is a warm and commanding man of God who epitomizes the best of his profession. He leaves behind his loving wife and cozy home to accompany his buddies to the Delaware base but subsequently will act upon other feelings.

At the base, the three vets meet the late Larry Jr.’s best Marine pal, Lance Corporal Charlie Washington (J. Quinton Johnson), who shares with the vets facts that suggest Jr.’s death was less noble than the government’s official story.

This revelation stuns Doc, who decides that his son’s casket must detour from Arlington to the family home in New Hampshire. The change, which entails the vets and the young Marine hauling the casket up north, sets off a chain of events, including stopovers in New York and Boston, and slow drips of further revelations that propel the film almost as energetically as the characters themselves.

Co-written by Linklater with Darryl Ponicsan (The Last Detail) and adapted from his novel, the film provides a suspenseful build-up to what exactly was the bad behavior in the killing fields that triggers the unease and guilt that also bond the three. And Sal can be a source of brutal truths, such as his observation that “every generation has its wars and men make the wars.”

The production also gives a big salute to Pittsburgh, which did a terrific stand-in job for a number of far-flung locations without any loss of authenticity. And the film, with both subtle anti-war and patriotic vibes, somehow manages that delicate balance—especially laudable in the terribly imbalanced time we now live in.

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