Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston and Laurence Fishburne star in Last Flag Flying, a drama about three former marines traveling to bury one of their sons who recently died while serving in Baghdad. It is a quiet, compassionate film that also happens to be quite entertaining.
As the film begins, it is December of 2003 and Larry (Carell, a Best Actor Oscar nominee in 2015 for Foxcatcher) has just arrived at a bar in Norfolk, Virginia. It turns out that the bar’s owner, Sal (Cranston, a Best Actor Oscar nominee in 2016 for Trumbo), served with him in the Marine Corps. After a night of drinking, Larry talks Sal into taking him on a drive. They end up at a church whose Reverend, Mueller (Fishburne, a Best Actor Oscar nominee in 1994 for What’s Love Got to Do With It), also served with them. After a nice dinner with Mueller’s wife (Deanna Reed-Foster), Larry reveals the reason they are all together: his son died in action and he wants Sal and Mueller to come with him to the funeral in Arlington. What follows is a road trip drama (with moments of humor) that is less about wacky adventures (there really are not any) and more about three men reconciling their pasts with their present.
Larry was only eighteen when they knew each other in Vietnam and does not seem to have changed much. He is quiet, polite and lonely after the death of his wife and now his son. Sal is loud, vulgar and not afraid to speak his mind at any given opportunity. He is also an alcoholic who never figured out how to live life outside of the Marines. Mueller has changed the most. He was a violent drunk in his younger days, but then he found religion, met his wife and became the respected leader of his own congregation. You can see the personality clashes right here on the page and the film certainly does not disappoint in that department. Sal and Mueller are arguing before the road trip even starts. But Last Flag Flying is not about these three men changing each other. It is far more subtle, and less manipulative, than I expected.
Chief among the films pleasures is its cast. Laurence Fishburne and Bryan Cranston are both good in familiar roles. They are trying to live with the guilt and responsibility of things they did in Vietnam. While Fishburne’s Reverend Mueller has turned his life around and become a man of God, Cranston’s Sal has never been able to move on from those days. Both actors are able to make these roles their own and Cranston brings some welcome laughs to the heavy material.
But the real star of the film is Steve Carell as the grieving Larry. He does not have a lot of dialogue as compared to his two costars (especially the motor-mouthed Sal), but what he does say and, even more so, the way he says it, conveys a lot of depth. He is playing a quiet character, yet you are always aware of his presence. It is an impressive performance because of how unshowy it is. He emotes just the right amount and allows the story to unfold around him. It may very well be the best performance of Carell’s career.
Some of the credit certainly needs to go to writer/director Richard Linklater (who co-wrote the screenplay with Darryl Ponicsan, based on Ponicsan’s 2004 novel of the same name). Linklater is one of the most consistent directors working today. Over the last 32 years, he has directed 19 feature films including 1993’s Dazed and Confused, the excellent Before trilogy (Sunrise, Sunset and Midnight) and 2015 Best Picture Oscar nominee Boyhood. Generally speaking, his films are smart, realistic and human. That is certainly the case with Last Flag Flying. Even though the story’s outline is not particularly original, Linklater and his extremely skilled cast are able to create an engaging and very entertaining film.
Last Flag Flying (118 minutes without the end credits) does not break any new ground. It will not wow you with any deep insights. It is just a good movie, well-made by a good cast and crew. Sometimes, seeing a good director direct a good cast using a good screenplay becomes a very good experience.
4 out of 5
Steve Carell as Larry “Doc” Shepherd
Bryan Cranston as Sal Nealon
Laurence Fishburne as Reverend Richard Mueller
J. Quinton Johnson as Washington
Deanna Reed-Foster as Ruth
Yul Vazquez as Colonel Willits
Directed by Richard Linklater
Screenplay by Richard Linklater and Darryl Ponicsan