‘Last Flag Flying’ is bittersweet salute to loss

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Grade: 4.0/5.0

When a loved one passes away during military service, it’s comforting to think that their death served a purpose, that their life mattered. In Richard Linklater’s latest film, “Last Flag Flying,” Larry “Doc” Shepherd (Steve Carell) simultaneously grapples with losing a son in the Iraq War and the reality that the military was untruthful regarding his son’s death.

Filled with both laughter and tears, “Last Flag Flying” balances tones and characters and paints a beautifully paced portrait of grief.

The film begins with Doc reuniting his long estranged Vietnam comrades Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston) and Reverend Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne). Doc is desperate as a grief-stricken father, he is forced into rallying these retired war buddies because he simply has no one else to turn to. Sal and Mueller are thus obligated to accompany Doc on his long journey to Arlington National Cemetery in order to lay his son to rest. Along the way, these three characters tackle topics such as honesty and loss and contemplate their own time served during Vietnam.  

All three men have vastly different strategies in dealing with their post-Vietnam trauma Sal paradoxically copes through his alcoholism, Mueller with his faith, and Doc, until recently, through his family. Carell offers a subtle and nuanced portrayal of a man consumed by loss, as the audience never gets to experience the man he was before. This personal brush with death echoes the national tragedy of 9/11 inherent in the film’s background: for Doc there is a definite before and after period of loss that utterly defines his character.

The conversations in “Last Flag Flying” ring with the timbre of Linklater’s naturalistic dialogue and each personality is well matched — Doc is our grief-stricken protagonist while Sal and Mueller serve as the respective devil and angel on his shoulder. Although Linklater may receive criticism for his tendency to simply showcase characters in dialogue with one another, it’s an effective strategy. Combined with powerhouse performances by each actor, the conversations remain intensely engaging and offers much needed moments of comedic relief.  

The three main characters may be equally balanced in terms of personality, but Cranston truly gets his chance to shine comedically on the big screen. Cranston delivers some of the best lines in the film and his direct style of comedy steals every scene he’s apart of. Clever quips such as “Urine. I love it. It’s like the offical smell of the city,” help compensate against the film’s more sober moments. A large part of Cranston’s appeal lies with his casual disregard for people in positions of power, ranging from Colonel Wilits (Yul Vazquez) to a baffled U-Haul employee (Jane Mowder).

In an interview with The Daily Californian, Linklater commented that the appeal for writing such characters may be a result of his own influence, “I guess I have that anti-authoritarian streak.” Sal’s continual insistence upon the truth operates as a double edged sword throughout the course of the film. His constant comedic presence, however, serves as a valuable counterpoint against the film’s heavy subject matter.

Fishburne also succeeds with his reserved performance, often serving as the voice of reason to foil the extremity of Cranston’s character. Putting a bar owner and a reverend in the same car together may sound like the setup of a bad joke, but Cranston and Fishburne play off each other extremely well, especially in the burial service at Arlington.

Needless to say, the movie handles difficult subject matter delicately, and it’s nuanced treatment of personal tragedy is immensely effective.

At times, “Last Flag Flying” is unbearable to watch. Grief take center stage and in particular the film’s final sequence is an utterly moving depiction of personal loss. But at the same time, Linklater’s use of humor and thoughtful construction of well-developed characters help ease the passage of time.

The ending could have easily echoed the cliché of a forced happy ending, but the film doesn’t fall into this trap. In its final moments, “Last Flag Flying” is bittersweet, not cheesy, and rings true to the experience of loss.

“Last Flag Flying” is an accurate rendering of grief. Although Doc lost his son, he recovered two friendships along the way.

Contact Sarah Alford at [email protected].