MOVIE REVIEW: Last Flag Flying

(Image courtesy of Amazon Studios via

(Image courtesy of Amazon Studios via


Special Presentation selection of the 53rd Chicago International Film Festival


Last year while reviewing Everybody Wants Some!!, this website and writer remarked how filmmaker Richard Linklater operates between free-wheeling fun and poignant realism with little middle ground.  No matter which parallel, the quality of his romps on one side or his character studies on the other are equally and rightfully celebrated.  It has reached the point where you have to ask if we’re getting "Party Linklater" or "Serious Linklater."  Contrary to the little middle ground previously mentioned, Last Flag Flying tries both.

In a bit of a spiritual sequel to author Darryl Ponicsan’s The Last Detail, veterans of the Vietnam War are reunited under somber circumstances and try to take stock on the new War on Terror.  The time is December 2003 near the time of Saddam Hussein’s Operation Red Dawn capture in Iraq.  The source of sadness comes from Larry “Doc” Shepherd, played by a soft-spoken Steve Carell.  Doc hasn’t amounted to much in his life residing in New Hampshire after a bad conduct discharge from the Navy Corps after Vietnam.  He did raise a strapping young son who joined the Marines after 9/11 only to be killed in action on the streets of Baghdad.

LESSON #1: THE DEATH OF A CHILD-- Few tragedies hollow a man out worse than losing a son or daughter before their time.  Despite knowing the risks that come with military service, a young man’s death is still a young man’s death that leaves behind a broken parent.  Even accepting the honor of such an ultimate sacrifice, the “why” and other questions of disillusionment soon follow.

His son’s body returns soon to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware with commendations for a hero’s burial in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.  Doc does feel he cannot make this journey alone and seeks out two of his old war buddies.  The first is Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston), a soused and uncouth bartender slinging Yuengling and chomping cigars in Pittsburgh.  The second is Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), a Baptist minister who cleaned up his “Mueller the Mauler” past life and found religion.  Rolling together in a road movie, the men reminisce about their wartime mistakes and reflections as they dodge pratfalls and follies on the highways and bi-ways to see Doc’s son to his proper final resting place.

LESSON #2: GET SERIOUS FOR A SECOND-- The ball-busting and guy chatter may dominate these characters dealing with grief in their own way.  Make no mistake, though, these men are still proud veterans.  They can turn on the brotherhood and ceremony when necessary.

One of both Party Linklater and Serious Linklater’s largest strengths is the punchy way with conversational dialogue.  United on a screenplay co-written with Ponicsan, Linklater’s colloquium of cool is on full display through the levity and brevity infused within extended talks and diatribes on everything from the military’s treatment of its people and the reasons behind the War to cell phones and the music of Eminem.  Much of this is an energetic performance of “The Bryan Cranston Show.”  

Cranston’s Sal is the rabble-rouser and sh-t-stirrer of most of the middle-aged musings being slung around.  Fishburne, Carell, and anyone else is lucky to get a word in.  Snappy as it may be in delivery, the hindsight revisionist rhetoric of the rants is uneven.  This is Linklater trying to execute both the party and pause to fluctuating success.  The yucks water down the thoughtful sincerity to a degree.  If you want a straighter version of this kind of soldier's story without the hit-or-miss comedy, seek out the extremely underseen 2009 HBO film Taking Chance starring Kevin Bacon.  Last Flag Flying can’t come close to that film’s conscientious commentary and eloquent power.

This is especially true by the time the film runs out of set pieces repetitively introduced in plaintive establishing shots.  Graham Reynolds’ weak folksy score does little to build a resonating mood to elevate the backbone of substance.  After a silly Homeland Security SNAFU, seriousness and topicality in the dalliances and sidebars unravel more and the humor piles on in the wrong moments.  That said, much is rescued in time for a resolution.  Reaching for sobriety for a few moments, Last Flag Flying does know to shut up when it needs to after laughing when it wanted to.

LESSON #3: BE READY FOR THE AFTERMATH OF “WITH ALL DUE RESPECT”-- More often than not, this lesson’s prepositional phrase used to open a sentence tends to be followed by the opposite of respect.  It’s a “bless your heart” sweetener before tough talk likely meant to change a mind or speak a mind.  Use it wisely and lay the wood.

LESSON #4: CHOOSING TRUTH OR THE LIE-- Are heroic lies acceptable?  The correct path all depends on the circumstance, the justification of past incidents, and to whom are you lying to (others, yourself, or both).  The lie is probably the wrong choice, but sometimes it’s not.