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Review: Last Flag Flying (2017)

Last Flag Flying (2017)

Directed by: Richard Linklater

Premise: Three Vietnam veterans (Bryan Cranston, Laurence Fishburne, Steve Carell) reunite after thirty years. One of their sons has died in combat while serving in Iraq and they transport the remains back to New Hampshire.

What Works: There have been several movies about the loss of American soldiers in the Middle Eastern conflicts of the past decade and a half. Films like Taking Chance and The Messenger told stories of soldiers coping with the loss of their fellow enlisted men and done it quite well. Last Flag Flying takes a slightly different approach. This movie focuses on a bereaved father, himself a Vietnam veteran, who has lost his son to the contemporary war. And that specific perspective distinguishes Last Flag Flying from other titles in the genre of Iraq and Afghanistan war pictures. This is a provocative movie. The father, played by Steve Carell, discovers that his son did not die in the heroic manner described by the military and he decides to relocate his son’s burial from Arlington National Cemetery to the family plot in New Hampshire. The fact that the father is a Vietnam veteran adds a unique perspective to this; he is joined by his Vietnam war buddies and because of their own wartime experience they are able to see through the official story. The son’s death stirs the men’s lingering trauma and unresolved feelings about their time in Vietnam and the movie scrapes against bigger ideas about the cycles of warfare and sacrifice. Last Flag Flying is primarily a road trip story in which the three men escort the son’s remains across the country and reestablish their friendship. What is most outstanding about this film is the triangular relationship between the three men and each of the actors involved gives an extraordinary performance. Bryan Cranston plays the foul mouthed and high energy member of the group while Laurence Fishburne’s character has reformed himself into a minister. Cranston and Fishburne’s characters are opposites and it’s impressive how each of them draws repressed characteristics out of the other. Especially impressive is Steve Carell as the bereaved father. He plays the role with simmering anger and Carell is soft spoken but his grief shows through. Also impressive is J. Quinton Johnson as a young solider who escorts the remains and becomes part of the group. Like a lot of Richard Linklater movies, Last Flag Flying is about the relationships between men and the picture has authentic moments of male camaraderie that Linklater does so well. But in this context and with these performances, those masculine relationships take on a whole different set of meanings that are much more mature than the nostalgia of Dazed and Confused or Everybody Wants Some!!

What Doesn’t: Last Flag Flying softens in its ending. For most of its running time this is a quietly angry movie about the way young people are shipped off to the wars and the lingering scars of those who come back. The movie loses its nerve in the ending and concludes in a more conciliatory way that’s out of step with the rest of the picture. The novel from which Last Flag Flying is adapted is a sequel to Darryl Ponicsan’s The Last Detail which was made into the 1973 movie starring Jack Nicholson, Otis Young, and Randy Quaid. For whatever reason, Last Flag Flying changes the names of the characters and so the movie doesn’t continue the story of the people established in the original film. Last Flag Flying stands on its own merits but it is also a missed opportunity.

Bottom Line: Last Flag Flying is a notable entry in the genre of post-9/11 war films. It’s got terrific performances and a genuine feeling of grief. It isn’t quite as good as The Messenger nor is it as subversive as In the Valley of Elah but it’s a smart piece of filmmaking.

Episode: #677 (December 10, 2017)