A Trio Of Veterans Embark On A Road Trip Together In 'Last Flag Flying'

Nov 2, 2017
Originally published on November 3, 2017 12:55 pm
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Richard Linklater has directed and co-written a new film called "Last Flag Flying." It's a sequel of sorts to "The Last Detail," the Oscar-nominated 1973 classic directed by Hal Ashby and written by Robert Towne. The new film stars Bryan Cranston, Steve Carell and Laurence Fishburne as a trio of Vietnam vets who embark on a road trip 30 years after serving together. Film critic Justin Chang has this review.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: "Last Flag Flying," Richard Linklater's warm, ribald and elegiac new comedy, opens with two Vietnam veterans reuniting at a bar in Norfolk, Va. The men could hardly be more different. As the hard-drinking, skirt-chasing former Marine Sal Nealon, Bryan Cranston gives a raucous performance of pure, unshackled id. By contrast, Steve Carell underplays beautifully as former Navy medic Larry Shepherd, aka Doc, a shy, sensitive widower whose downward-drooping moustache is like a distillation of purest tragedy.

Every beat of their conversation carries the weight of a painful, shared history, a weight that grows heavier still when they track down their old pal Richard Mueller, played by Laurence Fishburne. Richard was as wild as Sal when they were in the Marines, but he has since reformed and become a fire-and-brimstone Baptist preacher, a development that stirs no end of lively disagreement between them. But both men become quiet and reflective when they learn why Doc has brought them together.

The year is 2003, and Doc's 21-year-old son, Larry Jr., was recently killed in action in Iraq. Now he wants his old war buddies to accompany him to Arlington National Cemetery for the burial, a request that they can hardly refuse. Doc, Sal and Richard are bound by an uneasy mix of tension and camaraderie that you may recognize if you've seen Hal Ashby's "The Last Detail," a barbed, melancholy tale of Vietnam-era disillusionment as well as a memorable buddy-comedy showcase for Jack Nicholson, Otis Young and Randy Quaid.

But don't worry if you haven't seen that earlier classic. "Last Flag Flying" more than stands on its own. Like "The Last Detail," the movie is based on a novel by Darryl Ponicsan, who wrote the screenplay with Linklater. But this isn't a direct sequel to the Ashby film so much as a kind of spiritual follow-up. Character names and narrative specifics have been altered, but the bond between the two movies is more than plot-deep.

It's the sense of emotional continuity Linklater achieves that matters. As sad as Richard, Sal and Doc's journey is, there are numerous comic detours and digressions, as well. In one amusing throwaway scene, the three stop by a store selling mobile phones, which are only just becoming all the rage.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LAST FLAG FLYING")

LAURENCE FISHBURNE: (As Richard Mueller) All right, what if I don't like it? I mean, we get stuck with a contract for - what? - a year, two years.

KATE EASTON: (As character) Just two years.

FISHBURNE: (As Richard Mueller) Two years.

BRYAN CRANSTON: (As Sal Nealon) What if you fall down? Have you thought of that, huh?

STEVE CARELL: (As Larry Shepherd) Yeah.

CRANSTON: (As Sal Nealon) With your gimpy legs, that's a real possibility. What if you fell into a ditch, and you can't get up, and nobody can see you?

CARELL: (As Larry Shepherd, laughter).

CRANSTON: (As Sal Nealon) I mean, it is adios padre. But - ah - with your mobile phone, you get it out, and if you could see the numbers and your glasses are - oh, I can't see. Help me, help me. I've fallen, and I can't get up.

EASTON: (As character) Guys, 911 calls don't count against your minutes either.

CRANSTON: (As Sal Nealon) That's - come on. That's...

FISHBURNE: (As Richard Mueller) OK, all right, all right, all right.

CRANSTON: (As Sal Nealon) Yeah.

FISHBURNE: (As Richard Mueller) If I say yes, will you shut the hell up so we can get our trains?

CRANSTON: (As Sal Nealon) I'll shut up.

FISHBURNE: (As Richard Mueller) OK.

CRANSTON: (As Sal Nealon, yelling) Yeah (laughter).

CHANG: Listen closely, and you can hear Doc chuckling in the background while his buddies bellow and bicker. Carell's beautifully restrained performance gives the movie its moral center of gravity. When Doc learns the true circumstances surrounding Larry Jr.'s death, which a hard-headed colonel, played by Yul Vazquez, has tried to spin in the most heroic fashion possible, he's enraged by the dishonesty of it all.

He decides to have his son buried not in Arlington, but at home in Portsmouth, N.H., and to transport the body himself. Sal and Richard come along for the ride, as does Larry Jr.'s best buddy, Lance Corporal Charlie Washington, well-played J. Quinton Johnson. At this point, "Last Flag Flying" becomes a sharp consideration of the costs of serving one's country and of the bitterness and betrayal that its characters, especially Doc, feel toward the government, first in Vietnam and now amid a Middle East conflict with seemingly no end in sight.

Linklater has never been shy about giving voice to his politics. And here, in between all the off-color jokes and expletive-laden rants, he's not above turning his characters into mouthpieces. More than once, Sal and his friends grouse about why the U.S. is in Iraq to begin with.

And while many in the audience will nod their heads in agreement, the movie offers more than just an invitation to sneer at the George W. Bush years. Like so many indelible American war movies, including "Flags Of Our Fathers" and "The Messenger," "Last Flag Flying" salutes the courage of our troops while casting a hard, ambivalent eye at the government machinery that sends them into battle.

That's a heavy thematic load to bear, and with its classical road trip structure and grumpy-old-men schtick, "Last Flag Flying" ultimately feels more schematic, more self-consciously written than Linklater's earlier, less plot-encumbered triumphs like "Boyhood" and the "Before" trilogy, but it's still suffused with the emotional generosity that has become the director's signature. And the destination it arrives at is unexpectedly shattering.

At the heart of this powerfully unresolved movie is the question of whether a well-meaning fiction might be preferable to an unbearably painful truth. The beauty of "Last Flag Flying" is that it doesn't presume to know the answer. It can only ask and listen, and trust that we'll be wise enough to do the same.

GROSS: Justin Chang is a film critic at the Los Angeles Times. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like this week's interviews with humorist John Hodgman, feminist writer Lindy West and Jonathan Groff, who played King George on Broadway in "Hamilton" and stars in the new Netflix series "Mindhunter," check out our podcast. You'll find lots of interviews.

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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross.

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