Going into Richard Linklater’s latest film, I was falsely under the impression that I was going to see another two-hour, Clint Eastwood-esque, jingoistic rant about how our country is falling to pieces and the only true heroes are the superhuman members of our nation’s military. What I got from Last Flag Flying was something entirely different; almost an antithesis to the current theme of hyper-patriotism that has had a major cinematic platform in the last few years from 2014’s American Sniper to the upcoming The 15:17 to Paris.
Last Flag Flying follows Larry Shepherd (Steve Carell), a Vietnam veteran, as he rounds up his two estranged military buddies, Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston) and Reverend Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne) and asks them to go with him to retrieve his son’s body and take it to Arlington to be buried with honors as he was killed in an ambush serving his country in Baghdad. The three end up on an adventure across the east coast and reflect on their time in Vietnam, the trajectory of their lives, and their views of the current political climate of the war, with the film being set in 2003.
Carell, Cranston, and Fishburne all bring stellar performances to a story that cleverly handles difficult subject matter. The three are all representations of common possibilities that can occur to someone after serving, specifically in the Vietnam era. Shepherd started a family and his son enlisted in the Marines, Nealon became a cynical bar owner with a drinking problem, and Mueller found God and became a preacher. The three men have radically different feelings of the time that they served, but are fond of the relationships they built together because of it.
The camera is utilized exquisitely in this film to create the isolation felt by Shepherd throughout the film. He has the least amount of dialogue among the three, and Carell skillfully portrays the vast range of emotions felt by the character with body language and empty stares.
While I said that Last Flag was almost an antithesis to the “commie-bashin’” ideals of some of the more recent films, it is still very much a patriotic film that shows how difficult it can be to love one’s country, while feeling betrayed by it at the same time. Linklater’s film was based on the novel of the same name by author Darryl Ponicsan, who helped Linklater pen the screenplay, and while I am not familiar with the source material, the film’s message serves as a helpful reminder of what shapes one’s relationship with their country, and the trials and tribulations of that, as well as the struggles of serving in the military and retaining your humanity through emotional hardships, new and old.
-By Kirk Yoshonis