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.