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Storyline (warning: spoilers)
It is 2003. Thirty years after they served together, former medic Larry ‘Doc’ Shepherd (Carell) enlists ’Nam buddies Sal Nealon (Cranston) and Richard Mueller (Fishburne) to attend the military funeral of his son, killed in action in Iraq. A bittersweet road trip ensues.
Richard Linklater’s Last Flag Flying is a quasi follow-up to Hal Ashby’s 1973 The Last Detail starring Jack Nicholson, Randy Quaid and Otis Young (both films are based on novels by Darryl Ponicsan). It changes the names of the characters, but keeps similar story threads, moods and a sense of disillusionment. The result is by turns warm, funny, angry and melancholic.
It is hard to think of a better fit than Linklater to pick up Ashby’s mantle; both filmmakers prioritise people over plots, revealing flawed, very human characters in shaggy, free-wheeling stories told with unflashy style. For most of its running time, Last Flag Flying is a car and train trip that allows Linklater to do his juggling-contrasting-moods thing, from hilarious (the three men trying to buy a newfangled mobile phone) to the emotional (a visit to the mother of a dead soldier beautifully played by Cicely Tyson). Linklater raises questions about whether comforting fictions are better than hard truths, and takes a liberal stance toward patriotism and the military. This isn’t gung-ho flag-waving (which might go some way to explaining its lukewarm US reviews). The film respects the pride of those who serve while critiquing the government that has let the central characters down.
It’s a sombre, often cold-looking film. Shane F. Kelly’s cinematography offers grey images of run-down neighbourhoods, cities and train tracks, but the film has heart at its centre. Last Flag Flying is a thoughtful tally of the cost of war on ordinary lives that also manages to be a funny, moving men-on-a-road-trip movie.