Generous of spirit, co-written with intelligence by original novelist Darryl Ponicsan and director Richard Linklater, who brings a wonderful sense of patience and compassion to the proceedings, last year’s tough-minded and heartfelt drama Last Flag Flying is a sad and reflective piece that’s bolstered by a trio of low-key terrific performances from Steve Carell, Laurence Fishburne, and Bryan Cranston. This is an extremely affecting piece of work, very adult and serious, almost morose at times, but always ready to inject humor and warmth into the inherently upsetting narrative.
Serving as a “spiritual sequel” to Ponicsan’s novel The Last Detail (which was turned into a much-beloved motion picture by the team of Hal Ashby and Robert Towne), the narrative follows three former Marines who reunite out of solidarity when Carell’s son, himself also a Marine, is killed during the beginning stages of the invasion of Iraq. What follows is a road-trip of male bonding, honest tears, hard-drinking, and close friendship, as Cranston and Fishburne help to secure Carrel’s son’s body and get it back to New Hampshire, so that he can be buried next to his mother.
Things are made even more complicated by events from the past, with the guys’ experiences in Vietnam getting re-examined after many years of purposeful mental suppression. Painful truths are explored, and Ponicsan’s signature “Fuck the Man” vibes can be felt all throughout this emotional piece of storytelling. It’s also a potent anti-war piece that never takes the viewer onto the battlefield for bloody combat; words and actions are the bullets here, the force of which can be felt like deep explosions. Last Flag Flying is both incredibly angry with the U.S. government over a variety of issues, and yet, it’s deeply patriotic and respectful to those who have served in the military.
There’s nothing “easy” about watching this movie, and that’s because Linklater and Ponicsan never let anyone off the hook, and because of how great the central three actors are in their roles, there’s a sense of genuine camaraderie that seals the entire film in a layer of unexpected humanity that might not have been glimpsed in the rather misleading trailers. Each performance is magnetic, with the actors bringing something unique to the table. Carell barely cracks a smile and does a fantastic sad-sack, so it’s left to Cranston to chew the delicious scenery with a blustery, theatrical performance that must’ve been a blast to dig into. And then Fishburne is the quiet and steady rock of dignity, a man who has made a pact with God in order to forgive himself of past transgressions.
Shane Kelly’s unadorned cinematography still found ways to be visually interesting, and the film is further complemented by the invisible grace of Sandra Adair’s ultra-smooth editing. The final moments of Last Flag Flying sting with big-time emotional impact; cheers to whoever selected Bob Dylan’s “Not Dark Yet” to play during the end credits. The film left me with a major lump in my throat, and I think it’s a great piece of work that sadly never stood a chance with paying ticket-buyers. Amazon Studios financed this film, which definitely feels like something that would never have been made at the major studio level in this day and age.