Last Flag Flying

I have a love/hate relationship with writer/director Richard Linklater. More hate than love. I disliked Bernie, Bad News Bears, School of Rock, Dazed and Confused (although I realize everyone else loved those last two movies); Everybody Wants Some has good songs and recreated the ‘70s well, but stunk. Boyhood was good, but gimmicky and overrated. The Before Sunrise trilogy was solid, and now he gives us this military/road trip film that’s outstanding. And I didn’t even realize that Linklater was making this a sort of sequel to Hal Ashby’s 1973 The Last Detail (Jack Nicholson, Randy Quaid), which was a terrific military/road trip picture. I thought more of the movie Gardens of Stone (Francis Ford Coppola) that came out my senior year of high school (1987). Gardens came out the same time as Full Metal Jacket (Stanley Kubrick) and Platoon (Oliver Stone), and those were the two war films that got all the accolades. Yet sometimes the sadness in a war picture that shows funerals and flags draped over coffins, can move me more than the endless shooting on the field. And Last Flag Flying (which is way better than Gardens of Stone), captured that.

This is a movie you’re going to be hearing a lot about around Oscar time. One of the reasons for that is the three stars give incredible performances.

Bryan Cranston plays Sal, a bar owner in December of 2003 who gets a visit from Doc (Steve Carell), who he served with in Vietnam. Doc’s son was a Marine who died in war (no spoiler alert needed, that’s shown in all the trailers). He wants his two friends from ‘Nam to help him bury his kid. Just typing that sentence is making me cry again.

They go to pick up Richard (Laurence Fishburne, who fun fact: was in the Vietnam movie Apocalypse Now as a 14-year-old who lied about his age). He’s a Reverend, and doesn’t want to have anything to do with these two.

Sometimes Carell doesn’t work for me in serious roles. As much as I liked Little Miss Sunshine, I didn’t care for his character. And don’t even get me started on Foxcatcher. Yet he was good as Bobby Riggs in Battle of the Sexes earlier this year and he’s great here. He underplays it, and when the grief does hit him — I was bawling my eyes out in the theatre.

Cranston goes overboard a bit with his character. Linklater should’ve toned that down, although…having a character like that, who we think doesn’t care about anything but beer and women, also helps pack an emotional punch when he sticks up for his friends or does something nice. One example of that is when he goes back in the train and asks a young soldier that knew Doc’s son, to go up and talk to him. He implores the soldier to “Say something nice.”

There’s something about a gruff character doing something tender that melts my heart every time.

This movie had just the right touches of humor, and it never felt manipulative, or preachy in regards to war and the military. When the scene comes to show them actually burying the young soldier, it’s the most emotional thing I’ve seen all year. And that’s not because we’re watching a soldier that sacrificed his life, but what they do with the flag (I won’t spoil that here, but will say…maybe NFL players that kneel for the flag should watch this).

Some might find this film meanders a bit, or that it could’ve gone deeper into the dark areas. But this isn’t The Messenger (another terrific movie).

The movie also gets extra credit for the best diss of Eminem ever.

I’m giving it 4 stars out of 5. It’s one of the best movies of the year.