Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston and Laurence Fishburne star in Richard Linklater’s latest, Last Flag Flying. They are three Vietnam vets brought together by Carell’s Larry “Doc” Shepherd, who is grieving the loss of his son, a Marine killed in Iraq. Cranston’s Sal, an alcoholic bar-owner struggling to cope with his past mistakes, and Fishburne’s reformed Christian priest, Richard, join Doc as he tries to take his son home to be buried. They are the angel (Richard) and the devil (Sal) on Doc’s shoulders, whispering in his ear what to do at every turn. Not dissimilar to how they treated a much younger, more impressionable Doc back in Vietnam.
What ensues is a bittersweet road trip, as the three leads reminisce about the past, and face the troubles of the present head on.
Bryan Cranston steals the show. He’s a fantastic actor and he is given a role in which he can really shine here. Sal is hilarious but also has the obvious baggage from his days of war, and Cranston nails the perfect pitch and tone for this. The only issue with this is that the movie is supposed to be Steve Carell’s. It is Doc’s personal journey that should be the integral one, but a simple lack of scenes for Carell compared to Cranston means this is not the case.
That is a minor complaint though. Carell may get less attention but he is still fantastic as the grieving vet, adding a real nuance besides Cranston’s more showy performance. Fishburne is somewhere in between the two as the pastor Richard. His character has much less of a journey, but remains enjoyable and solid throughout. Richard comes out of his shell once more in the presence of his old friends.
It’s great fun to watch these three old friends interact and reminisce. Linklater uses some of his old tropes, most notably the train sequence from Before Sunrise, to allow the actors to do what they do best. Last Flag Flying soars in these moments of laughter between the three leads.
Linklater also does a great job of balancing all the different threads of the movie. It’s heart-breaking but also laugh out loud funny. The re-emergence of never truly buried problems and mistakes, adds a nice extra layer to the already stacked emotional stories, without overcomplicating the situation.
Linklater has less success though when he directly addresses the military and the idea of a government letting its people down. Although this is a huge part of the movie, it never feels like Linklater tackles the questions comprehensively enough, and so it leaves you with a sense of dissatisfaction when the credits roll.
Overall though, Linklater has another hit on his hands. Perhaps not to the same degree as 2014’s Boyhood (which I maintain should have ran away with the Best Picture gong), but this is still a great movie, even if it doesn’t reach the upper echelon of Linklater’s back category.