Directed and co-written by Richard Linklater, who’s known best for Boyhood and the Before Sunrise trilogy, Last Flag Flying comes right in time for Veteran’s Day. Rather than focusing on the acts of war, the film follows three men who have long since past their days fighting, only to be reminded that the past they shared while serving in the marine corp never dies. On one hand, the film could have easily spiraled into something akin to a veteran road trip movie, but it’s about more than that. However, despite Linklater’s best intentions, Last Flag Flying struggles in many areas, one of which is pacing and questionable dialogue.
It’s December 2003 and, Larry “Doc” Shepherd’s (Steve Carell) son has died in action in Iraq. With no one else to rely on, Doc goes to see his old friends, Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston) and Reverend Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), to ask if they will help him take his son’s remains to be buried in New Hampshire. The three marines haven’t spoken to each other in decades, but Sal and Mueller find it difficult to say no to their old friend–Sal out of having nothing better to do (his bar is rundown and not doing so well) and Mueller because of guilt and stubbornness.
Between talking, challenging, and staring down colonels and anyone else who won’t let them do as they please, Doc, Sal, and Mueller manage to prevent the casket from being buried in Arlington Cemetery, much to the chagrin of Colonel Wilits (Yul Vazquez). And even though the three friends are somewhat happy to be back in each other’s company, there are dark memories from their past mistakes that they’d much rather forget while in each other’s presence.
Last Flag Flying serves as an unofficial sequel to the 1973 film, The Last Detail. You don’t have to have seen Hal Ashby’s film to get this one, but it helps to have some background. To start with, Last Flag Flying is obviously not made for a younger demographic and some of the dialogue is low-key racist. I’ll be upfront and admit that I’ve never seen The Last Detail so as a standalone film, Last Flag Flying is decent, but nothing to write home about. The film has all the makings of a road trip movie and, even though it veers into that territory more than a couple of times, Linklater manages to at least avoid turning it into an empty adventure full of jokes about old age.
In a film that should have been more centered on Steve Carell’s character and his emotional journey, Carell doesn’t get as many moments to express himself as Cranston does. Cranston and Fishburne have the most intriguing dynamic as Cranston’s down and out, troubled Sal is always up for challenging Mueller’s religious beliefs and new way of life. Fishburne’s Mueller is either obviously frustrated with Sal or willing to verbally shut him down. However, there are several occasions when the dialogue is cringe-worthy and far too confrontational (in a bad way) on Sal’s end. At one point, Sal openly states the reason he would date black women is only for their butts, asks Mueller why he married a black woman, along with other questionable remarks about race, and it’s frustrating and unnecessary because the conversation is to make Mueller look like he has all the answers while Sal is forgiven because he’s just being his usual self: a jerk.
The film hinges primarily on the chemistry between the cast. It’s Cranston and Fishburne’s banter that carries the film. Without the banter and strength of their performances, the film would’ve completely fallen off. Linklater has no real sense of pacing and the movie becomes tiresome, slow in the middle, and dull because it goes on for far too long. Its emotional journey is thwarted by its incessant need to feel genuine, so much so that most of its depth is lost. One can appreciate the honesty, at least, that the characters feel conflicted about their time served in the armed forces. They’re not jumping at the chance to praise it and they question what the marines does to a person, what it did to them specifically, and what the point of war truly is. On the other hand, it does allow for the characters to appreciate their background despite their own negative feelings about it.
Despite some strong moments and a great cast, Last Flag Flying is hard to sit through. Linklater’s film is sluggish and full of missed opportunities. Only two of the three characters are fully realized and, while there are occasionally moving story and character beats, Carell is largely sidelined in a story that centers on his journey. There’s a lot of time wasted during the second act of the film and it’s hard to fully become invested because of the lackadaisical pacing and certain dialogue choices. The tone is somber, but the full weight of emotion is never behind it.