Last Flag Flying is a movie about grief in all its mundanity—an intimate, intentionally drab portrait of a man wrestling with the loss of his son. It’s also a road-trip film, an adult-oriented laugher about three long-lost friends reuniting and traveling together in remembrance of better times. But then it’s also trying to wrestle with the paradoxes of the U.S. military and the unfair, seismic tolls two wars—in Vietnam and Iraq—took on the country’s service members.
It’s perhaps no surprise that Richard Linklater’s new film, which mashes all these ideas together, doesn’t quite gel. The story pitch for Last Flag Flying sounds simple enough—three veterans crossing the country together to transport the body of a fallen soldier to his hometown. But the film feels half-formed, sometimes trying to be raucously confrontational, other times excessively sedate. Like some of the weakest efforts in Linklater’s career (Fast Food Nation, SubUrbia), this movie sees the director trying to tackle a grand issue from too many angles, and emerging with no major new insights.
Last Flag Flying is based on a novel by Darryl Ponicsan, who co-wrote the screenplay with Linklater. Ponicsan’s book was an explicit sequel to The Last Detail, his 1970 novel about two U.S. Navy sailors assigned to escort another soldier to military jail and deciding to show him a memorable weekend before his imprisonment. But for whatever reason (perhaps rights issues over Hal Ashby’s 1973 film adaptation of the first book), Last Flag Flying is a “spiritual sequel” at best, with the characters’ names changed and their backstories subtly adjusted (for one, two of them are former Marines now). That’d be forgivable if the movie didn’t make so many references to the trio’s wild times together in the past, which frustratingly are never afforded much attention.
So rather than Jack Nicholson, Randy Quaid, and Otis Young from Ashby’s film, we have: Bryan Cranston as Sal Nealon, a hard-charging veteran who now runs a dive bar; Steve Carell is Doc Shepherd, a far more taciturn member of his Vietnam unit; and Laurence Fishburne as Richard Mueller, a former wild man who is now a repentant, happily married reverend. Last Flag Flying is set in 2003, the first year of the Iraq War, and Doc visits Sal and Mueller to ask them to come to the funeral of his son, who was recently killed in combat.
Carell’s performance as Doc is muted to a fault—to be clear, this is a performance that lays it on just as thickly as his work as the preening billionaire sociopath in Foxcatcher or the grossly misogynistic Bobby Riggs in Battle of the Sexes. Only this time, Carell is entirely focused inward, barely able to say more than a sentence at a time, delivering every line as a mournful mumble. Carell is a naturally lovable performer, but here he seems to suffer a kind of extreme social anxiety that isn’t really addressed. Is he haunted by specific grief, or something bigger and unknowable? It’s hard to tell.
Cranston leaves no such room for ambiguity in his work. Sal is loud, brash, and foul-mouthed, a spark plug for a film that’s otherwise painfully quiet. But he begins to grate as well, seemingly unable to shift out of his high gear. Fishburne, playing someone who has tried to paper over the worst memories in his life, probably acquits himself best of the three, but Mueller is also afforded the least character work, with his transformation from one-time hellion to stately man of God mostly used as a punchline for Sal’s gags.
It takes a while for the trio to get together and hit the road (everything takes a while in this movie, which feels longer than its 125-minute running time). But once they do, Last Flag Flying doesn’t pick up any speed. There are conversations about the legacy of Vietnam, and the horrors they witnessed for a cause they still don’t fully understand. Then there’s some attempt to reckon with Iraq, though the verdict there is similar (that it’s a confusing mess of a war). And there’s an ongoing subplot about a dark incident in the friends’ past that they need to reckon with, which is never fully fleshed out.
Still, there are moments where it’s easy to see what drew Linklater to this story. A lengthy scene in which Carell’s character claims the body of his son, and asks to view his corpse in the sterile environment of a military air hangar, is played to quiet perfection. There, Linklater intuits exactly when to turn his camera away from the action and when to more directly confront the viewer. But for the majority of Last Flag Flying’s running time, the director doesn’t know whether to be angry, sad, or funny, instead drifting between tones. When the film finally builds to its conclusion (of sorts), it hasn’t achieved the kind of momentum needed to land a big political punch. The best Last Flag Flying can do is offer a subdued salute to a fallen veteran, and that’s better than nothing—but there’s a tremendous sense of greater potential wasted.