by Philip Price
It's 2003 and the memory of 9/11 is still fresh in the minds of most people. It's a time when men of a certain age found the noble thing to do to be to stand up and volunteer to fight for their country, to hunt down the Taliban, and rid the world of this evil that dared to disrupt the previous decade of peace America had experienced with the end of the Persian Gulf War in 1991. This marked the first opportunity for those that were just old enough to remember hints of the conflict in the Gulf War that presented a cause of their own to fight for. One of those who decided to take it upon themselves to do so was Larry 'Doc' Shepherd's son, Larry Jr., a Marine who we learn at the onset of the latest film from director Richard Linklater has been killed in action. It is in this tragedy and the context of these events that Linklater and co-writer Darryl Ponicsan, who also wrote the book this film is based on (and is something of a spiritual sequel to his 1970 novel, The Last Detail, which was also turned into a movie starring Jack Nicholson), come to examine the toll taken, the treatment versus the empty appreciation, and if the ultimate sacrifice would have been an easier route to take than the price most veterans pay for the rest of their lives. “Last Flag Flying” was initially published in 2004 and so it is very much a product of this great national tragedy itself where there was this immediate unification and call to action that lasted until many soldiers seemed to realize that such action wasn't all it was cracked up to be. That said, Linklater doesn't seem to be interested in making a political film, but rather one about the personalities of his three subjects and the necessary appreciation of their perspectives. It just so happens the military and the military lifestyle play a major role in who each of these men were and still are due to the fact this all-powerful entity is still dictating the way in which their lives and the lives of their loved ones do or do not play out. Like many Linklater films, there is more to “Last Flag Flying” than initially meets the eye as, on the surface, this largely looks to be a road trip movie that documents the rekindling of friendships with the power to work as a healing process for a single party’s recent tragedy, but while the film serves this obvious purpose it also means to be a meditation on identity as well as who and/or how we allow that identity to be defined after we're gone.
The line that “Last Flag Flying” walks so well is that of dispelling the mind that believes there are one of two ways to be. In the case of this film specifically, it's this line of thought that if you are against the war you are unpatriotic. For such complex and layered conflicts to be broken down into such a simpleminded idea makes sense given man's nature to ignore the complicated in favor of the clean and simple (I'm guilty of this as much as the next guy), but when it comes to subjects and circumstances that deal in actual lives of individuals or actions that put the lives of individuals at risk we can't afford to be clean, we have to look at every angle, consider every perspective, and evaluate every possible outcome in order to make a well-informed and sound decision on a topic and war certainly seems to be one that should be addressed as such, but is often reduced to the bad guys needing to be stopped and America being the good guys who are going to go in at all costs and stop them. Within the context of “Last Flag Flying” this point is made best through the audience getting to know Bryan Cranston's character, Sal Nealon, who is the only member of this trio we follow-up with that never settled down, that never found a way to feel like he belonged to society after returning from the war, and who ultimately only felt he'd found his place when he was in the core. To a certain extent it is a given then that Sal believes in the strength of the military and believes in the code and culture he abided by in his formative years unable to give into the thought that this thing he was a part of and this thing that lent him, so much purpose could turn out to be a complete falsity or little more than a machine for the powerful to recruit the lost and willing to fight their wars for them. Still, it is evident throughout the course of the actions Sal takes in “Last Flag Flying” that Sal is just as hesitant to embrace anything or anyone having to deal with the present representation of the military as he is to stand up for it. Moments when Sal must step in for the broken Doc (Steve Carell) where domineering Colonel's insist that Doc's son be laid to rest in Arlington in his blue's rather than in a way that Doc sees fit given his current state of resentment for the government. In one of the more powerful lines in the film Doc states that, "I'm not going to bury a marine. I'm just going to bury my son." and while Sal likely would choose to be buried in his uniform and with full military honors when he passes he understands and is sympathetic to where Doc is coming from. In short, Sal and Cranston's performance as Sal (while a bit too Cranston-y at times) is what allows both the films ideas and the film itself to walk this line between the sullen and the uplifting.
Sal being the only one of the group eager to re-live the past and test the limits of both Doc and Laurence Fishburne's Mueller is also what drives the plot to be consistently engaging rather than what it might have been without the character-a road trip with a grieving parent who retreats back into himself and his stoic demeanor and a man of the cloth who is hesitant to even go along on this trip for fear of slipping back into the habits of his younger years. Therefore, there is never a scene without Sal and why, whenever the trio is broken up we, the viewers, always stay with whatever group Sal is in. That isn't to say the other two performers aren't good or are not entertaining enough to hold the audience's interest, but while the performances are solid all-around it's true one wouldn't want to spend an entire movie with either of the other two guys. To their credit though, both Carell and Fishburne make their characters-if not necessarily barrels of laughs-still intriguing people we become interested in and care about. Carell is the perfect vehicle for empathy. The guy's face and everything about him make him so endearing and he uses that ability here to great advantage. Doc is the youngest of the group and was a young guy who just wanted to hang out with the older, cooler kids in his unit where there is history between the three of them that largely goes unspoken that has to do with actions involving the stealing of morphine, the loss of a comrade they then couldn't medicate because of this addiction, and Doc taking the fall for it all and spending a fair amount of time in a military prison. Doc doesn't bring it up and the whisperings between Sal and Mueller are typically stifled by Mueller while Sal seems to be building himself up to be a big enough man to finally face the consequences of what he once did. As Doc, Carell explores a side of himself we haven't seen on screen before. Granted, there is one scene where our three leads along with their military escort and friend of Larry Jr.'s, Washington (J. Quinton Johnson), recount old war stories where we get a glimpse of the Carell we all know and love, but Doc is largely a guy who doesn't like to talk about how he's feeling and would rather deal with his grief on his own terms, but who is foreword thinking enough to know that to accomplish what we wants with his son, to take his child back from those who took him away he's going to need help and he's going to need help from guys who understand which leads him back to Sal and Mueller and their remorseful hearts. And thus, the road trip movie is born, but of course “Last Flag Flying” becomes more than this as it is a Linklater film and inherently has more on its mind than standard plot devices and obvious old man jokes.
Conflicted about everything because it is trying to always better understand everything, a Richard Linklater film is something that always has something to say if not necessarily a point of view to say it from. This isn't because Linklater himself doesn't have a point of view, of course he does, but more the idea that when putting such perspectives down on celluloid there is a willingness to better understand whatever it is that's on the characters minds to as broad an extent as possible. For instance, “Last Flag Flying” could be about taking a stand against the military and America's frequent inclinations to become involved in conflicts where we don't belong and there would be plenty of material within the film to support as much while there is seemingly the same amount of material that would support “Last Flag Flying” actually being about the unbreakable bond formed between fellow soldiers and brothers no matter the lack of respect they might have for the powers that be that sent them to that God-forsaken jungle. Going back to dispelling the mindset that there is only one of two ways to be these contradicting ideas that the film and its characters sway back and forth between are Linklater's way of attempting to paint as well-rounded and as realistic a picture as possible the same could be said for Fishburne's character as this is a man who has reformed his soul and gone all the way over to the light becoming a loving husband, a father, now a grandfather, and a pastor with his own congregation. Mueller is a man who has come to fear his actions in Vietnam so much that he has essentially done everything he can do to make up for those actions to ensure he gets a ticket into heaven when all is said and done. That isn't to say Mueller's actions aren't genuine-at this point in his life I'm sure they've become so even if they didn't start out as, much-but the film makes a case for Mueller's noble life and this sense of purpose he has found through the respect he has gathered, but that doesn't mean Linklater and Ponicsan aren't going to challenge this acceptable train of thought. No, instead of letting Mueller have his way and keep his serene and simple existence intact Sal shows up to present this opposing view that rather than submit fully to God that he would rather be as real as he can under any set of circumstances and in any given moment (and, in all fairness, lives a little too much in each moment) while believing that, if there is a higher power, they will realize these are the type of people best suited for heaven; not the ones who let it be known time and time again that they go to church every week, but those that lead by example and try to do the best for themselves and for those around them. “Last Flag Flying” handles this difference and the many differences in perspective it addresses so skillfully that we hardly come to notice this supposed road trip movie isn't about three old men trying to re-live their past or re-kindle their youth as we might expect, but rather it is a film about these guys looking toward the future and better defining who they are and how they want their identity to be remembered and live-on.