LAST FLAG FLYING
Director: Richard Linklater
Screenwriters: Richard Linklater and Darryl Ponicsan, based on Ponicsan’s eponymous novel
J. Quinton Johnson
Runtime: 125 mins.
Australian release date: 25 April 2018
Previewed at: Palace Central, Sydney, on 10 April 2018.
Richard Linklater’s Last Flag Flying is a moving and at times hilarious examination of the effects of war, the consequences of patriotism and the importance of grief that takes its audience on a journey with three ex-Marines who served together in Vietnam, reunited after 30 years. Based on the eponymous novel by co-screenwriter Darryl Ponicsan, it’s a ‘kind of’ sequel to his 1970 book The Last Detail which also turned into a film, directed by Hal Ashby in 1973 and starring Jack Nicholson. This work, too, is a profound depiction of the value of friendship and the bond that comes from living through shared adversity.
It’s 2003 and in a bar in an off-the-beaten-track part of Norfolk, Virginia, Larry ‘Doc’ Shepherd (Steve Carell) rekindles his friendship with the bar’s owner and his old buddy from ‘nam, Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston). It turns out that Doc is seeking company to travel to collect his son, Larry Jr., a Marine whose body is being sent for burial at Arlington Cemetery in Washington D.C., a victim of the war in Iraq. ‘Doc’ also wants to convince another old comrade from his war service, Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), who’s turned to God and is now a reverend, to accompany them on the journey. The three men are all very different and have responded to civilian life in diverse ways: Sal suffered a head trauma in the war and appears to have no social filter, questioning authority and the negative legacy of his experience - and he drinks to compensate; the reverend has apparently found inner peace through religion and seems to have come to terms with his past mistakes; while Doc withdrew from life after the Marines, devoting himself to his wife and son. We learn that the three men developed a close bond in Vietnam. As their journey progresses they reminisce about their rampant use of drugs, alcohol and prostitutes ‘back in the day’ and gradually a shared secret is revealed. When the trio arrives at the military hangar where Larry Jr. has been transported, Doc suddenly decides to eschew his son’s military funeral and take him back home to New Hampshire for a civilian burial. Protocol insists that the body is accompanied by a serviceman, however, so Larry Jr.’s war buddy, Lance Corporal Charlie Washington (J. Quinton Johnson), is sent along on the journey north with the three old Vietnam vets and more truths are revealed.
Last Flag Flying brilliantly scrutinises the complexities of war and its aftermath. The cast without exception create blistering performances that bring tears of both laughter and grief. This is a poignant, thoughtful story that delivers a punch, regardless of one’s opinion of war. It resonates as an observation of the human spirit and the necessity to look after one another, whether on the battle-ground of war or in quotidian life. Carell, always superb, gives yet another stunningly nuanced performance and both Fishburne and Cranston are mesmerizing too. Cranston’s Sal is such a wild character but the Breaking Bad actor makes him likable and hard to dismiss. The only problem with Linklater’s film is its denouement, which has been criticised for its overt patriotism and I would add to that criticism. The ending is jarring after all the discussion about the complexities of war that has preceded it. However, the bulk of the film is terrific and really probes the question posed in the old protest song, “War! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing!” Sing it again.