Last Flag Flying: It's Not Dark Yet

Last Flag Flying
(USA, 124 min.)
Dir. Richard Linklater, Writ. Richard Linklater, Darryl Ponicsan
Starring: Bryan Cranston, Steve Carell, Laurence Fishburne
VVS Films
American independent filmmaker Richard Linklater returns to the dramatic element of time: how it shapes us, defines us, divides us, and unites us. After the 12-years-in-the-making Boyhood and the rollercoaster ride through love and marriage in the Before trilogy, Linklater tries something different with his approach to time: following up a story that is not his own. He’s sort of done this thing before with the random remake of The Bad News Bears, but his latest film Last Flag Flying offers a spiritual sequel four decades in the making to the 1973 Jack Nicholson classic The Last Detail. Last Flag Flying loosely adapts Darryl Ponicsan’s book about navy buddies reuniting and remembering the ghosts of their time together in Vietnam, and this smart and meditative film reflects upon America’s attitude to war across the ages.

Where The Last Detail gives Nicholson one of his best performances, Last Flag Flying does the same for Bryan Cranston (Trumbo) as the wily, Nicholson-esque Sal. The character is a salty old bachelor who never left the Marines in spirit and spends his later years running a crummy dive bar in Virginia. Loud, verbose, full of life, spirit, and an old school boisterous charm, Sal is perfectly content to sling cheap liquor (and notably good microbrews) at his hole in the wall. After everything he’s seen in war, there’s no harm in providing a safe haven; a neutral zone for men to escape the wars they wage.

One lone soldier seeking shelter is Sal’s old war buddy Larry “Doc” Shepard (Steve Carell, having a strong year with Battle of the Sexes). After the obligatory recognition and pleasantries {“It’s been so long!”) and far too many rounds of brews and browns, Doc suggests they complete the unholy trinity from their brigade. From Sal’s dirty bar, they go to church and fetch their third surviving war buddy: Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), now a pastor despite having a rambunctious past that mirrors Sal’s hedonistic lifestyle.

Linklater sets the table for an old family dinner as Mueller ad his wife (Deanna Reed-Foster) invite the boys in for Sunday supper. This convivial yet tense ritual illustrates how much or how little people change over the years. Mueller, now a Bible-thumping, priggish teetotaller, distances himself from the man he used to be. Sal happily continues being young at heart by drinking, smoking, and womanizing like a seaman and puffing up out his bachelor’s chest with cavalier confidence.

Doc, however, is a broken man. one worn down, sullen, visibly depressed and barely audible in his withdrawn composure. He’s barely present. Cranston’s excellent performance drives the film with its humour and verboseness, while Carell is impeccably restrained and subdued as the grieving Doc. Fishburne is somewhat constrained by his character’s one-dimensionality, but he brings a strong heart to the role and balances the energy between Cranston’s high wire act and Carell’s long face.

Doc’s demeanour makes sense when he reveals his reason for the reunion tour: his only son, Larry, was killed in Iraq. He adds that his wife passed away the year before, so he has nobody left to help him bury his boy. Despite some trepidation, Sal and Mueller accompany Doc on a road trip to see the fallen soldier come home.

The film mirrors The Last Detail’s rambunctious odyssey as the trio of Marines take Larry from the base in Delaware to the family plot in New Hampshire with booze-fuelled hijinks and boisterous episodes reminding them of the men they used to be. Some deeply disturbing facts about Larry’s death change the situation, though, and Doc finds himself struggling with an utterly senseless loss. The father and soldier’s grief is wretched all over Carell’s face as Doc learns how and why Larry’s life was cut cruelly short.

The pointlessness of giving one’s life for war underlies the reunion of these three men whose lives were altered by America’s other futile war: Vietnam. Last Flag Flying eulogizes the soldiers who fall in battle and all those who give something of themselves in wartime. Linklater and Ponicsan bravely interrogate America’s war record by weighing the nobility of the wars in Iraq and Vietnam against the lives taken in the name of freedom when the nation’s liberty was never at stake. The distance between the film, set in 2003, and the commencement of the war affords America’s effort some perspective: one can take stock of the nation that defines itself by war and question the point of it all. Linklater’s film, while dark and compassionately, soberly, and thoughtfully an anti-war portrait, doesn’t suggest that it’s all for nothing.

Last Flag Flying is a film of character and the integrity of these men resounds strongly during a scene late in the film when they visit the mother of a fallen Marine from their company. Played by Cicely Tyson in an utterly devastating cameo, the mother cherishes the memory of her boy as a hero who died saving his friends and protecting his family back home. The scene tasks the Marines to weigh the myth and lie, and in an exchange that Linklater, Cranston, and Tyson execute so perfectly that it deserves to be the film’s defining moment, the burden of the soldier becomes his or her complicity in the myth of America as a nation defined by heroic war stories. When the film ends with Larry laid to rest and with Bob Dylan’s “Not Dark Yet” sombrely and poignantly closing the story, Last Flag Flying salutes America’s soldiers and the heavy weight they bear.

Last Flag Flying opens in theatres Nov. 24.